The Battle Over California Privacy Ballot Initiative Looms Large in 2018

Among the small field of tech-related ballot proposals and ballot measures nationwide in 2018, a dog fight over privacy issues may erupt come June 25.

by / June 13, 2018
Click on each state for initiative details. Red - Approved Ballots/ Green - Approved & Potential Ballots/ Blue - Potential Ballots/ Source: Ballotpedia

California is poised to capture significant attention among ballot battle watchers in the next two weeks, when the Golden State is expected to declare whether the California Consumer Right to Privacy Act of 2018 has enough valid signatures to move it forward to the November ballots. 

Should the privacy initiative become an official ballot item, it will join only two other tech-related ballot measures on the books, according to Government Technology’s review of Ballotpedia’s database. In Florida, voters will decide whether to repeal an obsolete constitutional provision that calls for a high-speed rail system to be developed in the state, while Nevada voters will decide whether to allow automatic voter registration when using certain services offered by the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles.

Across the nation, nine potential tech-related ballot measures, including California’s initative, are in a state of limbo as to whether they will be included in the November elections. Potential ballot items include an initiative that could make cryptocurrency legal tender in Arizona, while Colorado voters may face a measure that calls on a ban regarding smartphone sales to minors under the age of 13.

“I have been tracking ballots for five years and I would say there seems to be more of a focus on technology as a topic,” Josh Altic, Ballotpedia’s project director for the ballot measures project, told Government Technology. “California has its privacy rights initiative, which Facebook, Google and Verizon are opposing, and Oregon has its net neutrality initiative.”

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed a net neutrality law earlier this year, in which companies that wanted to do business with the state had to abide by net neutrality provisions, but the law did not address consumers. As a result, Oregonians for Net Neutrality are still moving forward with their signature-gathering efforts to get the initiative on the ballot, Thomas Frank, the organization’s co-chief petitioner, explained. The group needs to collect a total of 87,184 valid signatures by July 6. 

“A lot of people are fired up about net neutrality and there hasn’t been any opposition to us,” Frank said. “All the tech companies like Twitter, Google, Amazon support it. Maybe that’s why we haven’t seen any opposition. The only ones who wouldn’t like it are the ISPs [Internet service providers] but we haven’t seen them come out against us.” 

Although Google and Amazon have voiced support for net neutrality, the same can’t be said about the California Consumer Right to Privacy Act of 2018. This initiative not only faces opposition from the Committee to Protect California Jobs, an organization sponsored by the California Chamber of Commerce, but Facebook, Google, Verizon, Comcast and AT&T have already each put in $200,000 to fight the potential ballot, according to Ballotpedia.

California Privacy Captures Ballot Attention

On the heels of last month’s European Union General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) enforcement deadline, tech titans and businesses are pushing back against the prospect of having to deal with similar regulation locally, should the California Consumer Right to Privacy Act make it on the ballot and pass. 

The initiative calls for consumers to have the right to know the various categories of personal information businesses collect, sell or disclose about them and the organizations that receive this information. 

Consumers would also have the right to prevent companies from selling or disclosing their personal information, and could sue businesses if their personal information is exposed in a security breach — regardless of whether they could prove they were injured by the incident. 

So far, Californians for Consumer Privacy have collected 637,000 signatures for the California Consumer Right to Privacy Act. Here are some key figures to track, according to information supplied by the California Secretary of State’s website:

  • 402,468 verified signatures of California voters are needed to put the initiative on the November ballot.
  • If 347,587 to 402,467 signatures are verified, then California’s counties will need to check every signature of the 637,000 submitted, rather than just do a random check. 
  • Anything less than 347,587 verified signatures means the initiative fails and will not be on the November ballot.
  • As of Tuesday, 159,540 signatures have been verified. The California Secretary of State is expected to announce on June 25 whether the privacy initiative will be on the ballot, failed or will need more time as the counties move to count each signature submitted.

“I’m pretty optimistic the initiative will get on the ballot. We submitted way more signatures than what was needed to qualify,” Alastair Mactaggart, campaign chair for Californians for Consumer Privacy, said. “Most experts have also told us we will likely qualify.”

If California’s Secretary of State announces June 25 that the initiative will be on the ballot, Californians for Consumer Privacy will have until June 28 to withdraw the measure. Mactaggart says he has heard legislators may be trying to put their own privacy bill forward but it’s questionable whether it will happen before the end of the month.

It is doubtful that any state or federal legislature can pass a meaningful privacy law, given the amount of money tech companies and other players can throw at opposing such a bill, Mactaggart says. 

“They probably think they can crush (opponents) like bugs and make the issue go away for several more years,” says Mactaggart, a real estate developer. According to Ballotpedia, Mactaggart has personally donated $2.35 million in cash and services to support the initiative.

The opposition — the Committee to Protect California Jobs — has received over $1 million as of last week, according to Ballotpedia. But Altic says opponents are likely to kick in a whopping $100 million if the initiative gets on the ballot. In 2016, for example, ballot measure campaigns received approximately $1 billion overall, with more than $616 million going to support campaigns and $396 million to opposition campaigns, he said.

Although Facebook initially contributed $200,000 to the Committee to Protect California Jobs, the social media giant in April announced it would stop providing funds to the opposition campaign and seek ways to focus its efforts on “supporting reasonable privacy measures in California,” according to a National Public Radio (NPR) report

Steven Maviglio, spokesman for the Committee to Protect California Jobs and a political consultant, told Government Technology the authors of the privacy initiative did not consider the “workability” of the measure and that it is almost impossible for organizations to comply with it. 

“If Amazon had to comply with it, anyone who orders anything from Amazon can request where their information went, and that can not only overwhelm a large company like Amazon but also smaller ones too,” Maviglio says.

He added the measure, if passed, would only apply to California and it would be difficult to enforce when it comes to companies that operate on the Internet and do business beyond California.

Meanwhile, the Committee to Protect California Jobs also plans to educate citizens about the potential impact the measure may have on the state’s jobs if companies chose to relocate or avoid the state altogether because of the California Right to Privacy initiative, Maviglio says, adding that the committee is “extremely” optimistic it can defeat the privacy ballot.

Other states may be watching the outcome of this ballot proposal, as well, Altic says. 

“Anytime there is a ballot measure in California, it is a bellwether for the nation,” he says.  

Dawn Kawamoto Staff Writer

Dawn Kawamoto is a technology and business journalist, whose work has appeared in CNET's News.com, Dark Reading, TheStreet.com, AOL's DailyFinance and The Motley Fool.