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California Lawmakers Hold Online Forum on Reddit

It was an unorthodox debut for the Legislature's new committee on privacy and consumer protection, and the first time Reddit's "Ask Me Anything" format has been used to host a legislative hearing.

by Melanie Mason, Los Angeles Times / February 25, 2015

(Tribune News Service) -- State lawmakers invited the public to ask them anything about privacy on the popular online forum Reddit on Wednesday — and ask they did, about drones, data breaches and government surveillance.

It was an unorthodox debut for the Legislature's new committee on privacy and consumer protection, which used its first hearing to establish itself as the staging ground for debate on some of the most vexing questions about the effects of technology on Californians' lives.

It was the first time Reddit's "Ask Me Anything" format has been used to host a legislative hearing, said Victoria Taylor, a spokeswoman for the website.

Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles), the committee's chairman, said he aimed to provide more convenience and transparency to the policymaking process.

"Typically, people who wish to ask questions or present opinions at a hearing like this would have to travel to Sacramento at significant expense, dress up in their Sunday best and wait in line to speak — usually for less than a minute," Gatto said in his opening remarks. "Well, today we've modernized and improved that process to make this Legislature more accessible."

Reddit, which bills itself as "the front page of the Internet," has become an increasingly popular vehicle for politicians keen to display fluency in online culture. President Obama, in his 2012 reelection campaign, did an "Ask Me Anything" session; Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti held a question-and-answer event during his mayoral campaign and another just before his inauguration.

The site is a popular format for both celebrities and average Joes with uncommon tales, such as one "animal rights attorney who freed a bear from an ice cream shop" — a session that was running concurrently with that of the lawmakers.

In a nod to the site's typically irreverent tone, Gatto encouraged users not to be hemmed in by the staid etiquette of the Capitol.

"If you want to ask me questions about which hair gel I use, or if you want to ask [Assemblyman Richard Gordon (D-Menlo Park)] if he prefers boxers or briefs — have at it," he said. "I think all of us agree that government could use a little more humor."

One question that did elicit laughs — albeit dry ones — was on the ubiquity of national government surveillance. "Is the [National Security Administration] monitoring this Reddit?" one participant asked.

"The answer is probably yes," Gatto deadpanned.

The forum attracted fewer than 50 comments, enough to generate about an hour of discussion but nowhere near the draw of Monday's session with former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, which generated more than 11,000 comments.

For the most part, users stayed on topic, asking questions that underscored how much new technologies have captured the public imagination. Gatto read aloud the questions submitted on Reddit, and users could watch lawmakers answer them via a video stream or wait for the answers to be transcribed into the forum by Gatto's staffers.

Dozens of lobbyists and staffers filled the hearing room, frantically taking notes on the proceedings. But most of the policy questions came from online users.

Lawmakers largely kept their comments general rather than support or oppose specific policies. But their answers did offer clues on their approaches to these issues.

In response to one query about regulating drones, Republicans on the panel, including Assemblyman Scott Wilk of Santa Clarita and Catharine Baker of San Ramon, said they would prefer to set guidelines rather than make binding laws governing how law enforcement and businesses can use such tools.

Assemblyman Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove), a former captain in the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department, referred repeatedly to his own public safety background as he defended law enforcement agencies' use of new technologies, such as license-plate scanners and programs that employ cellphone signals to find a suspect's location.

Reid Milburn, a consultant who specializes in veterans affairs and higher education, participated in the online forum from her Sacramento home office. She said lawmakers should continue to use Reddit to make the legislative process more accessible.

"The more the public interacts with state leaders, the more they feel like they're vested in it," Milburn said afterward. "It improves our state and our society."

Consumer protection will remain in the spotlight at the Capitol on Wednesday, with Gatto and Sen. Ted Gaines (R-Roseville) poised to introduce a package of privacy bills, including a proposal that would regulate the use of body cameras by law enforcement personnel and place restrictions on television sets that can record and transmit users' personal conversations.

©2015 the Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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