Facebook exits anti-privacy alliance it formed with Comcast and Google

Facebook recently teamed up with Google, Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon in order to kill a privacy law that’s being considered in California.

The five companies each donated $200,000 to create a $1 million fund to oppose the California Consumer Privacy Act, a ballot question that could be voted on in the November 2018 state election.

If approved, the law would make it easier for consumers to find out what information is collected about them and to opt out of the sale or sharing of any personal information.

But as Facebook handles the fallout from a privacy breach affecting up to 87 million users, the social network is dropping its public opposition to the proposed privacy law and won’t donate any more money to the opposition.

That doesn’t mean Facebook is actually supporting the ballot question, but the ballot question lead sponsor still chalked this news up as a victory.

“We’re gratified that Facebook has dropped its opposition to the California Consumer Privacy Act,” ballot question sponsor Alastair Mactaggart said in a press release yesterday. “Now that they have seen the error of their ways, we hope they will work with us proactively to protect the personal information of all Californians, and support us publicly and financially.”

Mactaggart, a real estate developer and investor who put $1.65 million into the ballot question’s support committee, also issued a message to Google, AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast. “If you are not selling our personal information, why are you spending a million dollars to oppose us?” Mactaggart said.

Facebook wants “reasonable” privacy measures

Facebook confirmed that it withdrew its opposition in a statement given to Ars and other media outlets. “We took this step in order to focus our efforts on supporting reasonable privacy measures in California,” a Facebook spokesperson said. The company said it has “no further information to offer at this time.”

But the change may have little effect on the industry campaign against the privacy ballot question. Facebook already donated the $200,000 in late February, and the company hasn’t gone so far as to support the privacy law. We asked Facebook if it will try to get the $200,000 back but did not receive an answer.

Facebook will not donate any more money to the opposition committee, Business Insider reported.

We also contacted Google, Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon to ask why the companies opposed the ballot question and whether they have made any changes in their stance. None of the companies responded with an explanation of why they oppose the proposed law.

Google sent our email to the group opposing the ballot question, which is sponsored by the California Chamber of Commerce and is called the “Committee to Protect California Jobs.”

“Facebook has NOT dropped its opposition to the measure,” the committee told Ars. “It believes it is ‘flawed’ and continues to oppose it. The company simply formally dropped their participation in the ‘no’ campaign.”

The committee also said, “It is unsurprising that proponents of the so-called ‘California Consumer Privacy Act’ are looking to distract from their deeply flawed initiative that will do enormous harm to the California economy while not protecting anyone’s privacy.”

Facebook expressed its displeasure with the ballot question in “an email to backers of the initiative,” according to KQED News.

“We do think the initiative is flawed and hope the Legislature will work out a strong solution to provide consumers the right to know what information is being collected and the ability to decide whether their information may be sold,” Facebook wrote in the email, according to the report.

While the ballot question opponents argue that Facebook hasn’t really “dropped its opposition,” a Facebook spokesperson said in an email to Ars that “Facebook withdrew opposition.”

Companies have avoided strict privacy laws

Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, and other ISPs avoided strict privacy rules at the national level when the Republican-controlled Congress and President Trump repealed broadband privacy rules last year.

The broadband privacy battle pitted ISPs against Facebook and Google, as broadband providers argued that they shouldn’t face stricter privacy laws than websites. Some US lawmakers have proposed privacy laws that would apply both to Internet service providers and websites, but it’s not clear whether Congress will take any action.

Law would give new rights to consumers

The state ballot question would give California consumers the “right to learn categories of personal information that businesses collect, sell, or disclose about them, and to whom information is sold or disclosed,” according to a summary prepared by the state attorney general’s office.

Businesses would have to disclose those data handling practices to consumers, who would be given the “right to prevent businesses from selling or disclosing their personal information.” Consumers would also be able to “sue businesses for security breaches of consumers’ data, even if consumers cannot prove injury.”

Businesses could face civil penalties; they could be held liable in data breaches if they fail to implement “reasonable security procedures and practices” to keep consumers’ information safe.

Businesses would not be allowed to deny service or charge more for a service to a consumer who requests information about the collection or sale of personal information, or to a consumer who “refuses to allow the business to sell the consumer’s personal information.”

The ballot question initiative group is called Californians for Consumer Privacy. The group’s members include the Consumer Federation of California, Consumers Union, Consumer Action, Catalina’s List, the Center for Public Interest Law, and DuckDuckGo. The coalition says it is made up of “consumer advocacy groups, business owners, technology experts, activists, and parents.”

A statement from opposition committee spokesperson Steven Maviglio argued that the measure will “disconnect” California.

“It is unworkable and requires the Internet in California to operate differently—limiting our choices, hurting our businesses, and cutting our connection to the global economy,” the statement said.

Though Facebook will no longer participate in the opposition, Maviglio’s statement suggested that the opposition committee is recruiting “major” new members.

“We will continue to proceed with an aggressive campaign, including major announcements of new opposition in the next few weeks,” he said.

To get on the November 2018 ballot, measure proponents must submit 365,880 signatures and get them verified by the state by June 28. The campaign told Ars that it is on track to submit the required signatures by the end of April.

“Voters overwhelmingly support this measure,” Mactaggart claimed in his statement on Facebook dropping its public opposition. “Protecting consumers is not only a good business decision, but the right thing to do. It’s time to stop business as usual and to step up and do the right thing.”

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