Aug 23, 2018

The Problem of Patchwork Privacy

There are a growing number of voices raising concerns about privacy rights and data security in the wake of news of data breaches and potential influence. The European Union (EU) recently adopted the heavily restrictive General Data Privacy Rule (GDPR) that favors individual privacy over innovation or the right to speak. While there has been some discussion of potential federal legislation related to data privacy, none of these attempts has truly gained traction beyond existing special protections for vulnerable users (like children) or specific information (like that of healthcare and finances). Some states, notably including California, are attempting to solve this perceived problem of data privacy on their own, but often are creating bigger problems and passing potentially unconstitutional and often poorly drafted solutions.

All states have at least minimal data breach laws and the quality of such laws both in effectiveness and impact on innovation varies. Normally states work as “laboratories of democracy” and are able to test out different regulatory schemes for new technologies with less demosclerosis than the federal process. Similarly, they are better able to account for different preferences in tradeoffs, and in some cases, they are more able to remove barriers to entry by reforming existing areas of law like licensure or products liability to accommodate a new technology. In areas like autonomous vehicles, telemedicine, and drone policy states are often leading the way to embrace these new technologies. However, a new trend in some states to formally regulate the Internet through laws aimed at data privacy or net neutrality to achieve what they perceive as failures of the federal government to act ignores the potential damage to the permissionless federal policy that made the Internet what it is today.

California has passed the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and other states are likely to follow suit. Unfortunately, these type of statutes are likely to impact innovation in a misguided attempt to correct issues with data privacy. However, these statutes could reach far beyond state borders and illustrate the potential risks of a fifty-state privacy patchwork.

These laws will likely lead to a problem in identifying what entities are covered by the privacy legislation. California’s recent CCPA defines those who are required to comply so ambiguously that a reasonable interpretation would imply the law applies so long as a single user is a resident of California whether they are accessing the website from California or not and no matter if the website purposefully avails itself of California or not.

State laws also unintentionally make it more difficult for small, local companies to compete with Internet giants. Large companies like Google and Facebook can afford the cost of additional compliance but it is more difficult for smaller and mid-size companies to cover such costs. As a result, if they are able to comply they often are more limited in their ability to fund future innovation as they instead invest resources in compliance. In a world of state based privacy laws, it’s inevitable that some would impose contradictory standards and as a result might actually make it worse rather than better as companies pick and choose which states to comply with. What is already playing out in Europe where small and mid-size companies are choosing to exit the market rather spend the cost in complying with new restrictions could play out for states with more restrictive data requirements. And it’s not just fledging startups that have difficulty, the L.A. Times and Chicago Tribune have been unavailable to Europeans since GDPR became effective as they had not completed compliance by the May deadline. In some cases companies have founded it easier to block or exclude effected users than to comply with onerous data restrictions.

In some cases, states making exceptions for companies below a certain number of user also may discourage investment at a certain point. For example the CCPA kicks in at 50,000 users. As a result there is a large marginal costs for gaining 50,001st user as compliance with the standards are immediately required. This might lead to caps on certain newer platforms or encourage innovators to look for loopholes to avoid the high cost of compliance early on.

But even if states were able to create a sort of interstate compact that created an effectively uniform state level set of privacy laws, it would still be an inappropriate use of federalism for the state to govern data privacy due to its de facto impact on interstate commerce and the First Amendment.

The Internet by its very nature transcends states borders and any state laws aimed at impacting privacy are likely to have national and global impact. This is not what is intended by federalism and not just the case for states like California with a significant amount of tech companies. If there are 50 different state laws than new online intermediaries will have  develop 50 different compliance policies or the most restrictive state will become the de facto standard for everyone left in the industry. As Jeff Kosseff points out, a world of 50 variations of the same privacy law based on users would require out-of-state content creators would likely require significant changes to their existing systems and place an undue burden on content creators and users.

Additionally, there are legitimate concerns about the First Amendment rights to share information that may be in conflict with the way privacy rights are enforced under proposed laws. Requiring otherwise lawful content to be removed silences the speaker. For example, if a friend posts a picture from a party that includes you and you ask all your data be removed is that data yours or your friends. To remove the data would silence a speaker and value one individual’s right to privacy over another’s right to speak. In some cases it seems such tradeoffs could be reasonable such as speech that is not just merely offensive but causes clear harm to the person it is about such as revenge porn, but in many cases it is far less clear. Unfortunately when faced with the crippling potential sanctions of such laws, many companies take a remove first question second approach as has been seen with copyright under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

While there is a growing voice for data privacy, there seems to be little willingness on the part of consumers or regulators to make such tradeoffs. The so called “privacy paradox” where people do not undertake the necessary actions to match with their stated desire for increased data privacy and many willingly admit they prefer the convenience they receive in exchange for their data. If action on data privacy is necessary, it should occur at a federal level to avoid the patchwork problems that would result from inconsistent state laws. Any law must be narrowly tailored to respect the First Amendment rights of both users and platforms. We also must be aware of the tradeoffs that we are making between innovation and privacy when we see calls for a US GDPR. At the same time we should be concerned that as a result of the heavy burden of compliance with GDPR, a more regulated Internet where only those who can afford to comply survive may replace the permissionless start-up American driven version.

While federal preemption may be needed to address a patchwork of state privacy laws, we should be cautious and seek to avoid the mistakes of GDPR type privacy laws that place a value on individual privacy above innovation and knowledge sharing. Simple steps in providing more transparent information and requirements for notification are more likely to allow individuals to make the privacy choices that best fit their needs.

A privacy patchwork of state based “solutions” is likely to create more problems than it solves. The real solutions to our current dilemmas will come from conversations about how we balance the rewards of innovation with individual preferences for privacy.

Photo credit: Rich Pedroncelli/AP/Shutterstock

 

Support Mercatus

Your support allows us to continue bridging the gap between academic ideas and real-world policy solutions.Donate