ACLU slams Washington lawmakers for ‘closed-door’ privacy bill negotiations with Big Tech

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State Sen. Reuven Carlyle and the ACLU’s Shankar Narayan clashed over the data privacy bill during an event in Seattle in March. (GeekWire Photos / Monica Nickelsburg)

Consumer and civil rights advocates are up in arms over the status of a data privacy bill in Washington state.

The bill would give Washington residents more control over the data companies collect and store on them and would impose new regulations on the development and use of facial recognition technology. Critics of the bill, like the American Civil Liberties Union, say Big Tech has had too heavy a hand in crafting the legislation.

What happened this week adds weight to their concerns.

The bill nearly failed to make it out of the House Appropriations Committee so lawmakers stripped it down to little more than its title. That helped the bill narrowly clear its expiration deadline, allowing negotiations to go forward behind closed doors. Just four stakeholders were invited to the negotiations, according to the ACLU: Microsoft, Amazon, Comcast, and the Association of Washington Business.

“With this move, tech corporations have made it clear that they will seize the opportunity to regulate their own business as loosely as possible, by willfully neglecting to include impacted communities in the discussion,” said Shankar Narayan, Director of the ACLU of Washington’s Technology and Liberty Project, in a statement.

More than 20 consumer and privacy advocacy groups have opposed the bill from the beginning, claiming it contains too many exemptions for the corporations it seeks to regulate. One of the groups, WashPIRG, criticized the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Reuven Carlyle for sanctioning the private negotiations.

“We think it was a mistake for Senator Reuven Carlyle to seek the input of lobbyists for big tech companies, including Amazon and Comcast, without asking for advice from those of us whose primary mission is to protect consumers or, for that matter, actual consumers,” said WashPIRG Director Elise Orlick in a statement.

The fate of the bill rests on the private discussions between lawmakers and representatives from the business community. The negotiations will determine whether or not Washington state enacts its first data privacy regulations.

Update: Sen. Carlyle provided the following comment in response to the criticism.

Elected representatives have a responsibility to represent all 7 million Washingtonians and throughout this entire, months-long process, we have been reaching out from top to bottom, to activists, organizations in the technology sector and consumers, to get as much information as possible. I personally continue to meet with industry, privacy advocates, the ACLU and many others. As chair of the Senate Environment, Energy & Technology Committee and this bill’s sponsor, I’m committed to passing responsible legislation – based on those conversations and on best practices and lessons learned from the European Union, California and around the world – that takes a strong and meaningful step forward in giving consumers the right to access, delete and manage their own data. At a time when the federal government has effectively walked away from privacy protection, it’s more important than ever for state governments to step up and lead, and that’s what we’re doing.

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