Legislative Fix Needed to Keep Internet Applications Free in California

Times of San Diego - July 4, 2018

By Satia Austin, President of the NAACP North San Diego Branch

No matter where you go in California, you’re likely to see someone on their smartphone, tablet or computer using an app or other online service to look something up, watch a video, send an email, check social media or the weather, or any number of the dozens of things people do online every day. Today, most of these online activities are free, meaning whether you are a college student researching a paper, a single mom looking for a job, or a small employer sending an email to your staff, the internet provides everyone from all walks of life equal and free access to information and services critical to our everyday lives. But these free services that have helped level the socio-economic playing field are at risk unless a policy fix is passed in Sacramento this year.

In 2018, the State Legislature hastily passed a sweeping measure known as the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA). This law was intended to give consumers more understanding and control of their online personal data and information, something we all support.

But the introduction and passage of the CCPA took place quickly, in just one week. It was widely understood at the time that clean-up legislation would be needed in 2019 to work out unintended consequences that would no doubt come to light after people had time to digest the massive new law. Many flaws did come to light. One of the most significant has to do with language in the CCPA that hinders tailored online advertising by prohibiting the sharing of technical information necessary to make the ads work. These ads are a major reason why many online services are free now, and unless fixed this year, this flaw in the CCPA could result in new costs for online services we take for granted and get for free today.

These additional costs would widen the digital divide between those who can afford to pay and those who cannot. Certainly, legislators don’t want to do that. Tailored online ads are similar to commercials in free television programming. Advertisers pay for commercials which are inserted throughout shows letting us watch for free. Online ads help make it possible to have free access to online services we take for granted.

Tailored ads are delivered using unique identifying numbers attached to computers, tablets and phones and do not rely on sensitive personal information such as an individual’s name, address, social security number or banking information.

A policy fix would clarify that when a consumer opts-out of the “sale” of their personal information, it does not restrict the ability of companies to continue to market targeted ads to that same consumer as long as those ads rely on sharing technical information only, not personally identifiable information. Targeted ads may sometimes be annoying, but they are not a real threat to our privacy. California’s privacy laws should be focused on stopping identity theft, hackers, and criminal activity that puts our finances and safety at risk.

The needed policy fix will continue to uphold the primary provisions of the CCPA and safeguard our privacy while still ensuring equal and free access to the internet for all.

We talk about bridging the “Digital Divide.” As of last year, California had the highest poverty rate in the nation. The people most at risk of being left behind are those who already suffer from a lack of access to resources and will be the least likely to be able to afford paying higher costs to access services online.

In today’s fast-paced world, we cannot afford to continue to marginalize these segments of our society that are already disadvantaged. Let’s keep the internet free for all.

Satia O. Austin is president of the NAACP North San Diego Branch and the state advisor for CA-Hi Youth and College Division. She works as an educator and a graphic designer.