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Put Privacy on the List

October 29, 2003

Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger should boldly use his scheduled star turn today on Capitol Hill to tell bureaucrats and lawmakers what's really on Californians' minds. It's not just disaster relief, budget woes, the rotten economy, labor strife and health-care concerns.

This lobbying trip offers him a golden opportunity to talk about privacy rights as well, and to turn his talk into action and work with others to benefit Californians. One key way to do this would be for him to join Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer in urging Congress not to dismantle SB 1, the tough consumer privacy law passed in bipartisan fashion three months ago in Sacramento.

Congress is dangerously close to approving legislation that would prevent California and other states from enforcing SB 1 and other privacy laws that are tougher than what Uncle Sam has on the books. That would be a mistake. Consumers demand and deserve stronger protection from banks, insurers and securities dealers that treat credit records, bank account balances and other personal data as if they were cheap kids' trading cards, all fodder for their intrusive marketing machinations.

SB 1 gave Californians unprecedented power to determine how much and what type of sensitive financial and personal data businesses can share with other firms. If anything, consumers nationwide should be clamoring for equal protection. But business interests are lobbying relentlessly to stick consumers with federal privacy rules. These are so pro-business that 75% of the states with consumer laws already have tougher protections. So why go backward now?

Congress promised voters that it would improve consumer rights with regular reviews of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, initially passed 33 years ago to balance competing interests of business and consumers. Bills in the House and Senate would make it easier for consumers to see credit reports and report identity theft. But the legislation wouldn't help consumers keep private their bank balances, spending patterns and other sensitive data.

Congress could cover this gaping problem by adopting the amendment crafted by Feinstein and Boxer, which keeps alive the protections at the heart of SB 1.

Businesses, which loathed SB 1, feign outrage at the amendment. But Congress should ignore this bluster and recall that lobbyists in Sacramento yielded in August on these very kinds of reform. Why? Even tougher restrictions loomed in a statewide ballot initiative, for which advocates had already collected hundreds of thousands of signatures.

Schwarzenegger knows about the power of angry voters. His mere presence, especially if he truly acts for the people of California, should serve as a warning to Congress of the peril to politicians who would sell out voters' privacy interests so others can make a buck.

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