Despite Business Opposition, Florida Data Privacy Bill Advances

Florida's business lobby is getting much of what it wants this legislative session, but one area where GOP lawmakers who control the Legislature are clashing with big business is on the issue of data privacy.

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(TNS) — Florida's business lobby is getting much of what it wants this legislative session, from COVID-19 lawsuit protections to a big unemployment tax break.

One area, though, where GOP lawmakers who control the Legislature are clashing with big business is on the issue of data privacy.

Privacy bills that have drawn the ire of the business community are ready for final votes in the Florida House and Senate, with the House expected to vote on the legislation Wednesday.

The data privacy debate is a rare high-profile issue that has advocates among the most conservative and liberal members of the Legislature, showing that misgivings about how businesses handle sensitive consumer data span the partisan divide.

The House bill sponsored by Sarasota GOP state Rep. Fiona McFarland is particularly loathed by big business because it allows consumers to sue big companies for data privacy violations, an idea the Senate jettisoned in the face of business opposition.

McFarland said the intense pushback from the business industry has been "challenging" and she is sympathetic to some of their concerns, which have prompted revisions to the legislation, but believes the time has come for a data privacy bill with a strong enforcement mechanism.

The fact that there is widespread support for the legislation on the left and right "speaks to the core issue, which is that an expectation of privacy is a core fundamental American belief," McFarland said.

"We all sort of feel uncomfortable about the role technology has in our lives without us knowing what's going on," she added.

McFarland's HB 1734 only applies to larger companies — those with at least $50 million in revenue that collect data from more than 50,000 Florida customers and share or sell that data — or those that primarily focus on collecting and selling data as a business model.

The legislation requires companies to tell consumers what data they are collecting and what they are using it for. Consumers also would have the right to delete or correct that personal information and opt out of having it sold or shared.

Similar laws have been passed recently in California and Virginia.

Some of the biggest concerns expressed by Florida business interests are the cost of complying with the bill and worries that it could lead to frivolous lawsuits.

"Many of these businesses have just barely survived the pandemic and if this bill passes they will face significant compliance costs and legal exposure at a time when they really can't afford it," Grace Lovett , a lobbyist with the Florida Retail Federation, told a House committee last week.

Under the House bill, "consumers whose personal information has been breached, sold, or shared after opting-out, or retained after a request to delete or correct" can file a lawsuit, according to a staff analysis.

This so-called "private right of action" has been staunchly opposed by business interests. It was removed from the Senate bill earlier this month, leading to complaints that the legislation was being watered down, even as some business interests continued to oppose the revised Senate bill because of concerns about the cost of compliance.

McFarland said the ability for consumers to file lawsuits over data privacy violations helps give the legislation "teeth."

"There's got to be some consequence for not complying with the bill," she said, adding: "Nobody is a better advocate for their own privacy and self-interest than themselves."

McFarland's bill advanced with unanimous support through three committee stops. It is backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and House Speaker Chris Sprowls , both of whom touted the legislation during a February press conference.

State Rep. Anna Eskamani , D- Orlando, is a co-sponsor of the legislation.

"I think it's important as a progressive to show solidarity on this bill because I think it's good for Florida," said Eskamani, one of the Legislature's more liberal members.

Technology has rapidly evolved and laws surrounding issues such as online privacy have not kept up, Eskamani said.

The bipartisan support for the effort reflects the fact that data privacy is popular with Floridians, she added, noting the complaints she received about the bill all were from large companies "not everyday people."

Still, Eskamani is worried that the Legislature will pass a version of the legislation that isn't aggressive enough in protecting consumers.

Some House Republicans have expressed concerns about letting consumers sue companies over data privacy issues, indicating they may prefer the Senate version of the bill without that provision.

"I'm watching the bill very closely," Eskamani said. "Obviously the House and Senate have different versions. This is the time amendments will land to try and make the bill less effective."

Meanwhile, business interests continue to complain about the cost of both bills and may be hoping the two chambers deadlock and pass nothing at all.

"At the end of the day this bill still is going to cost Florida businesses a gigantic amount of money to comply with," Associated Industries of Florida lobbyist Brewster Bevis said before the amended legislation passed its last Senate committee, adding: "I think we all need to just hit the pause button for a moment."

DeSantis making the issue a priority gives it more momentum, though.

McFarland has argued that some of the cost estimates are overblown. She is hopeful that the Legislature will pass the House version of the bill with stronger enforcement mechanisms.

"We've worked very closely with industry to get this bill to where we think it's in the strongest and best place," she said, adding: "We'll have conversations with our Senate counterparts... and see where we land."

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