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Group Assails Privacy Measure Changes

Santa Monica consumer advocate says the bill no longer clearly requires businesses to get written consent before sharing personal data.

June 14, 2003|Carl Ingram | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The leader of a Santa Monica-based consumer advocacy organization charged Friday that a widely debated privacy bill has been so weakened since being embraced by Gov. Gray Davis that it no longer sufficiently protects Californians from the release of their personal information to telemarketers.

Davis' office and an aide to the bill's sponsor denied that Davis has softened the legislation. Other consumer groups backed the governor, saying that though they were concerned about some of the language in the compromise proposal, they remained supportive of the overall package.

But the head of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Protection -- a consumer group that sponsored the 1988 initiative known as Proposition 101, which reduced auto insurance premiums -- criticized an amendment that he said weakened the bill by failing to make it clear that a business must obtain the written consent of a customer before sharing the customer's private data with its own family of affiliates and subsidiaries.

"Gov. Davis demands a signature before he cashes a check from his campaign donors. The public deserves to have the right to sign away their privacy before their information is sold," said Jamie Court, executive director of the foundation.

Court and Richard Holober of the Consumer Federation of California also criticized a new provision that would enable banks and other financial businesses to release and sell information for up to 45 days after a new customer had ordered that the personal information not be shared.

Other consumer activists defended the bill (SB 1) by Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Burlingame) as providing strengthened protections for consumer privacy. But several representatives said they were concerned about some of the amendments and said further changes would be made.

"We are swallowing hard and we are taking" the amendments, said Valerie Small Navarro of the American Civil Liberties Union. "But some of the language needs to be cleaned up."

Any further major changes may be difficult, however, as at least one participant in the negotiations threatened to pull out of the compromise if the amendments work against the interests of consumers.

"There cannot be any more substantive changes that whittle away at the consumer's ability to control his or her information," said Shelley Curran of Consumers Union, who participated in drafting the changes since Davis endorsed the bill 10 days ago.

The measure faces a high-stakes hearing Tuesday in the Assembly Banking Committee. Its fate is expected to be decided by several moderate Democrats considered to be friendly to business. Last year, such Democrats rejected a similar Speier bill on the last night of the session.

Polls have shown protection of consumer privacy to be a high priority with Californians. In the past, Davis had not favored the bill, but he embraced it last week, saying the personal information of Californians -- Social Security numbers, bank account balances, mortgage payments and even health histories -- should not be "bought and traded like baseball cards."

When it passed the Senate earlier this year, the legislation prohibited businesses from releasing their customers' personal data unless they first received written consent from the consumer. But Court said this was amended in the last few days to remove the clear requirement that the consent must be in writing.

The new language would require that financial institutions seek permission, but not necessarily that it be in writing.

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