Privacy bill gets gutted
Lobbyists weaken bill that would have protected consumers
Georgia almost became the first state in the country to rein in what private companies can do with the personal data they collect about you.
Instead, the bill's sponsors, Sens. Robert Lamutt and Mike Polak, caved in to lobbyists who represent companies that buy, sell and copy personal information such as home addresses and phone numbers.
In its original form, the bill would have given consumers the right to forbid companies from using or selling their private, personal information, such as home address, annual income, and phone number. And if a company sold or traded that data for a purpose other than its intended use, the company would have been obliged to tell those customers.
Currently, AT&T can sell the names and phone numbers of its own customers to telemarketers. Likewise, Time can sell the names and addresses of its subscribers to direct mail marketers.
In the bill's original form, the companies had an incentive to follow the privacy practices listed in the bill. In return for protecting their customers' privacy, companies' databases would be protected from being pilfered by competitors. For example, say a company took the time to collect the names, phone numbers and addresses of everyone living in Atlanta. If someone copied that list without permission, he or she would face a penalty of up to $50,000 and five years in jail. In essence, databases would have received copyright protection.
"Privacy is of critical importance to the Internet and electronic commerce, and it's important for consumers to able to control the use of their information," says Paula Bruening, an attorney with the Center for Democracy & Technology.
If the privacy section of the bill was left alone, Georgia would have become the first government, state or federal, to curb the buying, selling and copying of personal information. And it easily could have served as a model law for the rest of the country, just as its author intended. The bill was written by Georgia Electronic Commerce Association Executive Director Richard Keck, whose electronic signature law was adopted by the Georgia General Assembly and the U.S. Congress.
He wrote the bill in a way that would balance business development with individual rights, a rarity in lawmaking.
"If we give folks legal protection [for their databases], they must have some respect for the privacy of citizens of whose information they have," Keck said last Thursday, the day before the privacy provisions were removed. "We don't want to throw the resources of the state behind people who don't meet the [privacy] standards."
But direct marketers, fearing the law would eat into their profits, rallied the troops and began an intense lobbying campaign against the measure.
The bill passed the Defense, Science and Technology committee Feb. 26. By noon the next day, Jean McRae, a lobbyist for the Direct Marketers Association, and Mike Levin, of the American Electronic Association, were fighting to kill the privacy protections in the bill.
The Direct Marketers Association lists the privacy issue as one of "the most important and threatening issues facing direct marketers today." It's the largest trade association (with 4,500 member companies) in the world for businesses related to interactive and database marketing. AT&T lobbyists also opposed the privacy section.
Those lobbyists didn't have to work too hard. After phone calls and meetings with the lobbyists opposed to privacy legislation, Polak and Lamutt cited a "lack of consensus," dropped the privacy sections of the bill, leaving it essentially emasculated — at least from a consumer's point of view.
"If we left it [the privacy provisions] in the bill, it would have solidified opposition to one section and that could have hurt the rest of the bill. And I will not push the privacy issue to the detriment of the entire bill," Polak says. "The privacy section was in there to make sure Georgia wouldn't be a haven for databases that have questionable practices on data collecting. But because I introduced it so late in the session, we did not have time to get everybody together to work out the privacy provisions."
Even before the bill was debated on the floor of the Senate, Polak and Lamutt attached an amendment to SB 214 that deleted each line pertaining to privacy. Last Friday, the amended bill unanimously passed the Senate.
Reached at the Capitol, one of the lobbyists, McRae, said: "I work for people who didn't authorize me to do press relations."