Mikio Nakazato uses the Wi-Fi at a Starbucks in downtown Los Angeles in July.… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Sacramento and San Francisco — California is putting itself in position to lead the fight for increased online privacy by trying to pass the country's first so-called do-not-track law to keep personal data from being grabbed off the Internet.
Legislation by state Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) would create a mechanism to allow users of smartphones, tablets, computers and any other device that accesses the Internet to tell website operators they don't want their online habits monitored.
As California did with do-not-call efforts to block telemarketers, he said, the state should be out front in blocking online tracking. "We will lead and provide stimulus to the rest of the nation," Lowenthal said. "It's much more difficult to get something like this through Washington."
Momentum is growing for do-not-track legislation, either as a stand-alone protection for consumers or part of more comprehensive privacy reform, privacy experts say. California's bill signals that the final push might come from the states, not the federal government.
"The states have been quiet in this area for a couple of years," said Mike Zaneis, general counsel of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, a trade group for the $23-billion online industry. "Leave it to California to jump in."
Lowenthal said he believed a law could be enacted quicker in California because Democrats control the Legislature and the governor's seat. Even so, he said, protection of Internet privacy is not a particularly partisan issue, because all lawmakers' constituents are concerned about privacy for themselves and their children.
"I'm interested in this, and I think there may be some abuses in this area," said state Sen. Tom Harman (R-Huntington Beach), a member of the Judiciary Committee, which will hold an initial hearing on the Lowenthal bill on April 26. "California does have a track record of leading the way on privacy issues."
The proposed legislation is similar to federal Internet privacy bills introduced this year in Congress by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) and others.
Speier's proposal stems from a Federal Trade Commission report in December that urged the Internet industry to give consumers a means to keep personal information private.
The FTC is exploring whether consumers should be able to control the kinds of online ads they see or to stop websites from monitoring where they go and what they do on the Web. Online advertisers favor self-regulation. For example, Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc. offer ways for consumers to see how they are being targeted and to opt out of that targeting.
Lowenthal's bill would empower the state attorney general to issue regulations requiring a simple, user-friendly method that allows users to block programs that track online information, including addresses and names. Violations could be targeted with civil lawsuits filed by individuals and the state attorney general.
"Nearly 80% of Californians use the Internet and nearly 45% use Facebook, including myself," Lowenthal said. "But, today, millions of Californians are unaware that their online behavior is being tracked, their data collected and sold to advertisers."
Passage of a California bill could reignite the national debate over electronic privacy, said watchdog Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy in Washington.
"California has pioneered protecting consumer privacy, including for the Internet, often helping create a model used for subsequent federal legislation," he said.
"Bringing the do-not-track debate to the Golden State places new pressure on Google, Facebook and other online marketing giants who have been fighting against new privacy rules," he said.
Chester and other proponents of do-not-track laws point to California's 2002 passage of a do-not-call telemarketing bill as a precedent. However, the California law never took effect because the federal government issued its own do-not-call regulations in mid-2003.
Pressure from both Washington and Sacramento could force Silicon Valley executives "to consider supporting some form of compromise on privacy," Chester said.
Some of those changes are underway.
Three major Internet browsers — Google's Chrome, Mozilla's Firefox and Microsoft's Internet Explorer 9 — now offer features that can block online tracking. But Lowenthal noted that the features can be cumbersome to use and that individual websites are not required to comply with requests.
Google declined to comment on the bill. Yahoo said only that it was reviewing the bill and would address lawmakers' concerns.