California has proposed a potentially groundbreaking consumer privacy law. The Right To Know Act, if approved, would require companies to divulge what kind of data they have on individual consumers, as well as with whom they're sharing that information.
We need this. Not only should California pass this law, but it should be emulated far and wide. And while it's a good start, The Right To Know Act is really just the beginning of what's needed.
The vast quantity of personal data that companies collect, store and sell is mind-boggling. We caught a glimpse of some of this massive and now-routine data mining during the presidential campaign. Outside of the election cycle, it continues full force as marketers and financial institutions amass private information about consumers, sell it to one another and use it in ways that aren't entirely clear. Much of it is totally obvious and innocent. Some of it probably isn't. We don't know. That's the problem.
The Ongoing Personal Data Explosion
Of course, this data is just going to keep exploding. The proliferation of smartphones has generated enough privacy questions to keep lawyers and legislators busy for a generation. We're just beginning to grapple with those issues and now Google wants us to wear computers on our faces. As we move toward wearable computers, connected cars and smart homes, the sheer volume of data about our personal lives is going to grow exponentially.
There's a lot we stand to gain from these advances in personal technology, just as we have with smartphones and tablets. But before we plough forward into this otherwise awesome future, we should probably take a minute and think about some of the less exciting implications. Privacy is at the top of the list.
The Right To Know Act sounds like a sensible attempt to set up the kind of consumer privacy framework we'll need to have in place if we don't want things to get too weird in the future.
Whether or not we actually regulate the ways companies use this data is another question, which we'll also need to deal with. In the meantime, what the Right To Know Act will do is simply allow consumers to know exactly what data exists and and to learn a little bit about how it's being used.
"This Law Is About Transparency"
"This law is about transparency and access, not new restrictions on data sharing," writes the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), one of the supporters of the bill. "It helps consumers, regulators, policymakers, and the world at large shine a light onto the largely hidden, highly lucrative world of the personal data economy."
To Europeans, this concept isn't anything radical. As Ars Technica points out, the European Union has laws like this on the books already, as it should. The principle of habeas data, as it's known, is just a part of digital life there.
How likely is passage of the bill? Plenty of firms will loathe it, but it will be interesting to see how tolerant the more privacy-friendly tech companies are of the idea. It's hard to predict the bill's fate, but when it comes to implementing forward-thinking privacy laws, California has a pretty decent track record.
The premise is that simple: Companies know a lot about us, and we, as consumers, have a right to know what they know. Whether or not we can do anything about it, we at least deserve to know. They are, after all, our lives.