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High-Tech Hypocrisy

Many of the same technology executives who are trying to capitalize on the trafficking of our kids’ private information are striving to keep their own information private.


Across the country, well-funded armies of technology lobbyists are mobilizing as part of a coordinated national effort to water down common-sense privacy protections for kids and parents.

As tech executives wage private battles to keep their own information private, they are employing hordes of lobbyists to work state legislatures across the country and in the halls of Congress to water down privacy rules for everyone else.

Wherever they go, their rallying cry is the same: That simple protections to ensure the privacy of sensitive information will somehow stifle innovation.

What these companies are really after is the ability to get any data they want, wherever they want, and share it with whomever they want to boost their profits. That’s why they are mobilizing in states like California, where there are trying to water down strong privacy protections that were signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown last year.

We see similar efforts in Oregon, Maryland and other states, where high-powered and high-paid tech lobbyists are busily working behind the scenes to water down legislation aimed at protecting kids and parents.

The goal of these measures is not to stifle innovation — far from it. The goal is simply to ensure that the same kinds of privacy protections we have all come to expect in the pre-digital age, that have been part of the American social contract for centuries, survive into the 21st century and beyond.

Common-sense guidelines for how technology companies can gather and use data is not the enemy of innovation. It is an important part of our ongoing digital revolution. These guidelines will allow companies to build trust with their customers and ensure that new generations of users can take advantage of exciting new products and software without having to sacrifice their basic right to privacy.

This is particularly true in the classroom, which has been transformed by exciting new educational apps and software that promote digital literacy and enhance student learning. Our goal is to ensure that kids and their parents can embrace these new educational tools without worrying that their personal security is being compromised.

In California, which led the nation last year with the passage of the Student Online Personal Information Protection Act, we see industry working through Assemblyman Ian Calderon to try to water down those new privacy rules. We’ve seen tech lobbyists hijack what started out as good bills in Maryland and Oregon. And the industry has been reluctant to embrace the bipartisan effort in Congress to set federal rules limiting the capture and use of student data.

Are you telling me that the tech industry — the most innovative in the world — is going to stop being innovative because they can’t capture and sell our data without first getting consent? Please.

As Wired magazine put it recently, “When a handful of tech giants are gatekeepers to the world’s data, it’s no surprise that the debate about balancing progress against privacy is framed as ‘pro-data and, therefore, innovation’ versus ‘stuck in the Dark Ages.’ Now that the issue has been turned into one where you’re either for enlightenment and progress or for stifling human advancement in the name of privacy, it becomes more difficult to say: ‘I’m against big data.'”

Meanwhile, the fight to protect the privacy of consumers continues. In California, Sen. Mark Leno drafted a bill that would prohibit mobile applications from collecting or sharing users’ GPS data unless the apps provide clear notice about how the location information will be used and shared.

The bill would also prevent companies from collecting and sharing mobile device users’ location without their express consent.

Common sense, right?

That is, common sense to everyone except for the tech industry, which wants to collect as much data and information it can about the public so that it can profit from the information.

Of course, some of the leaders of the tech industry do have serious privacy concerns — for themselves, if not for their users.

As top tech executives seek personal protections and exemptions from open-records laws, their companies are increasingly working to get increased access to their customers’ most personal and private information.

As a recent New York Times article explained, it is becoming increasingly common for tech titans to require the people who remodel or work on their lavish homes to sign nondisclosure agreements as they try to keep their personal information out of the public domain.

As the Times put it, “Some people requiring nondisclosure are the very ones who have built an industry on its opposite, the disclosure of personal information.”

The hypocrisy is glaring. Many of the same technology executives who are trying to capitalize on the trafficking of our kids’ private information are going above and beyond to keep their own information private.

It’s good to know they understand the importance of personal privacy. It would just be nice if they extended some basic consideration to their users instead of just thinking about themselves.

James P. Steyer is the founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that has led advocacy efforts around the nation for strong privacy protections for kids, Reach him @jimsteyer.

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