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Internet Privacy and the California Governor's Race

Today, often all it takes is a few words typed into a search engine to turn up personal information on the internet. Names, addresses, even pictures posted on social networking websites are just a few kinds of data that can be floating around cyberspace for anyone to uncover. With the overwhelming availability of information online, internet privacy has become a political issue that is struggling to keep up with the constantly evolving technology. As such, some California voters are wondering whether it is time to create statewide protections rather than waiting for federal action. California's candidates for governor have taken notice, and what to do about internet privacy has become a contentious issue in the upcoming election.

The Different Positions on Internet Privacy

In California, privacy is a fundamental right. In 1972, Proposition 11, approved 62.9 percent to 37.1 percent, established a constitutional amendment in California identifying privacy as inalienable. Electronic privacy issues have been on the radar for a long time in the Golden State; years before the creation of Google, Facebook, or Microsoft, a voter handbook statement warned that the computerization of records makes 'cradle-to-grave' profiles of every American a possibility. As a state that has traditionally been on the forefront of computer privacy issues, it is no surprise that gubernatorial candidates are paying close attention to internet privacy protections.

However, not all agree that internet privacy is a an issue capable of being dealt with at the state level. Meg Whitman, the Republican nominee for governor, although a strong believer in Californians' right to privacy, says that internet privacy has traditionally been a federal issue. Whitman is the former head of eBay, and under her leadership, the company opposed state efforts to regulate internet privacy and instead argued for a national standard. When she was eBay's chief, Whitman was also part of the tech trade group Consumer Privacy Legislative Forum, which was established in 2006 to lobby Congress for a national standard in federal privacy legislation that would preempt state laws. The same opinion, that web privacy is a federal issue, is widely held by corporate Silicon Valley. To some, this view resonates, as the internet tends to transcend geographic borders.

Others feel that state laws have a role to play in internet privacy. Jerry Brown, the Democratic nominee for governor, feels that there is a place and a need for both federal and state laws to keep up with the new privacy concerns created with every technological advance. While Brown has expressed concern over creating excessive regulation, he has voiced his willingness to protect people in cyberspace at the state level, if necessary.

Looking Ahead

Whoever becomes the next governor of California, internet privacy is not an issue that will be going away anytime soon. Every time we sign up for services, we make available our personal information, allowing advertisers to better target their messages. Most of what companies do with such information is harmless, even useful. But, there is a growing concern about misuse of personal data, particularly that of minors.

In April, the California state Senate approved Senate Bill 1361 by a 25-4 vote. This bill would have barred internet companies from asking minors for personal details, such as their home address. In response, Facebook retained a Sacramento lobbyist for the first time, and on June 28, the bill stalled in its first Assembly committee. In a statement, Facebook mirrored the Common Silicon Valley view, saying that "national laws . . . are easier for innovative companies like ours to respond to than are local laws." There is currently no federal law that specifically bars companies from collecting personal information from minors.

Even seemingly ironclad privacy policies can fail to protect personal data. A company based in West Hollywood published XY Magazine for 11 years ending in 2007. XY also ran a social networking site and collected subscribers' addresses, photos, bank card information, and email addresses. Many subscribers were juveniles. XY's comprehensive privacy policy stated: "Our privacy policy is simple: we never share your information with anybody." Yet, the company was on the brink of selling the data in a bankruptcy proceeding, until the Federal Trade Commission put the sale on hold. Some feel that a state law could have offered another layer of protection.

When it comes to protecting your information on the internet, the first step is being careful about what you yourself send out into cyberspace. At least for now, the status of significant protections based in either state or federal laws is uncertain. Perhaps the California governor's race will prove some indication of just how safe the public feels online, and whether the state or the federal government is best equipped to enact new legislation.