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Time is running out for California Internet privacy bill hated by industry

As the clock ticks down on the current California legislative session, it’s increasingly looking like phone and cable companies have succeeded in killing off a bill aimed at giving state residents more control over Internet privacy.

AB 375, authored by Assemblyman Ed Chau (D-Arcadia), was introduced in June after Republican lawmakers in Congress and the Trump administration repealed privacy rules put in place by the Federal Communications Commission under former President Obama.

The California bill would remedy that by requiring telecom companies to obtain customers’ approval — an opt-in — before using, selling or sharing people’s personal information with marketers.

"Congress and the administration went against the will of the vast majority of Americans when they revoked the FCC rules," Chau said after introducing his bill. "California is going to restore what Washington stripped away."

Nearly two dozen other states are pursuing similar fixes, and polls suggest that restoration of Internet privacy rules is strongly supported by both Democrats and Republicans.

But privacy advocates tell me Chau’s legislation has been trapped for weeks in the Senate Rules Committee, apparently with the intention of letting it die before it can come up for a vote by next Friday, the final day of political business in Sacramento.

The Legislature won’t be back in session until Jan. 3, at which point AB 375 could be reconsidered.

“This is a bill that phone and cable companies never want to see live and breathe,” said Ernesto Falcon, legislative counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “They know that the moment it comes up for a vote, they lose.”

The industry’s strategy, he said, seems to be trying to buy time until it can persuade Republican lawmakers in Washington to pass a watered-down Internet privacy law that would preempt state measures.

AB 375 already has been approved by the Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee and by the Senate Judiciary Committee. A vote by the Senate Rules Committee is the final hurdle before it can be acted upon by the entire Senate.

All eyes are on state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles), who not only quarterbacks the chamber, but also chairs the Rules Committee. Bottom line: If de Leon wants to bring AB 375 up for a vote, it comes up for a vote.

So why doesn’t he?

Jonathan Underland, a spokesman for de Leon, said that while committee staffers have been “jumping through hoops” to move the legislation, “the language of the bill touches on some extremely complex privacy and communications policies at the federal level.”

“The committee continues their work on the bill, and no final decisions have been made,” he said.

Funnily enough, de Leon’s largest corporate donor is AT&T, which the EFF’s Falcon said has been especially aggressive in lobbying against AB 375.

De Leon received $14,200 from the telecom giant in the last election cycle, according to Vote Smart, a website that tracks political contributions.

Other top contributors include Comcast ($8,200), the California Cable and Telecommunications Assn. ($8,200), Charter Communications ($8,000), Time Warner Cable ($8,000) and Cox Communications ($8,000).

On an industry basis, de Leon received $248,016 from communications and electronics companies, according to Vote Smart.

Underland declined to comment on whether the industry contributions played any role in de Leon’s handling of AB 375.

Samantha Corbin, a Sacramento lobbyist representing privacy interests, wouldn’t speculate on whether de Leon’s reluctance to advance the bill was linked to all that telecom industry cash.

“But that certainly colors my opinion about why things are happening the way they are,” she said.

It wouldn’t seem too much to ask that telecom companies not serve as digital pimps for our personal information. All of them declare in their privacy policies that they’re committed to protecting customers’ data.

AT&T: “Our privacy commitments are fundamental to the way we do business every day.”

Verizon: “We are committed to maintaining strong and meaningful privacy protections for customers.”

You bet.

Telecom companies know that an opt-in would be lethal to their business models, which increasingly rely on revenue from marketing deals. The simple fact is that few consumers would voluntarily agree to have their information shared with others.

At the same time, these companies know that hardly anyone takes the trouble to opt out of marketing arrangements, making the current system preferable to any alternative.

“This is found money for them,” Corbin said. “They already get paid for providing a service. The marketing money is a huge extra.”

I reached out to AT&T, Verizon and Comcast, which Corbin and Falcon said have spearheaded efforts to kill AB 375. Only AT&T responded.

The company said in a statement that the bill “is being pushed without a public hearing” and “will lead to consumer confusion, diminish the Internet experience and result in a hodgepodge of state-by-state regulations.”

AT&T insisted that “our customers are in control of their information” and “they have choices about how AT&T uses their information for marketing purposes.”

But a choice the company doesn’t want them to have, clearly, is the one where AT&T has to ask their permission for any data sharing, which is the only choice worth having.

Chau told me he remains optimistic that his bill will find its way out of committee, get approved by the full Senate, return to the Assembly for committee review and get approved by the full Assembly — all before next Friday.

He said he’s been in touch with de Leon, but hasn’t received any indication about the Senate leader’s intentions. When I brought up the telecom industry’s political donations, Chau offered a terse “no comment.”

“I’m still hoping California will take the lead on this issue,” he said. “I’m hoping the bill will continue to move.”

Time’s running out. You might want to email de Leon or give his office a call at (916) 651-4024 if you think Internet privacy is important.

Why should AT&T have all the fun?

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.


UPDATES:

10:05 a.m.: This column was updated with comment from a spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon.

This column was originally published at 3 a.m.

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