Protect Free Internet Access for All

Event-News Enterprise - August 7, 2019

By Dr. Fred Calhoun, NAACP President, Orange County Branch

Like a high-quality education, the internet has the promise to be the great equalizer. Whether rich or poor, black, brown or white, old or young, equal access to information and resources online can help bridge the gap between the haves and have-nots.

Unfortunately, equal access to the internet and its daily conveniences is in jeopardy. Action by Sacramento lawmakers is desperately needed this year to ensure the internet remains the great equalizer it has become. Specifically, a legislative fix is needed to ensure modern online advertising remains viable to support the free online services we enjoy and rely on today. Without this action, a flaw in the rushed privacy law passed last year threatens to create broad gaps in internet accessibility affecting those less fortunate.

Most of us currently take for granted our reliance on free online services such as driving directions, surfing the web, watching videos, accessing social media or using email. Much like we get free television programming because networks sell commercials, the free internet is made possible because internet sites serve us ads, many tailored to our interests. Importantly, the services and conveniences of the internet are significantly more critical than television programming to connecting underserved Californians with education, jobs and transportation.

The threat to free internet services and apps is one of the unintended casualties of last year’s well-meaning passage of the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA). The legislation is intended to give consumers more control over their personal data and information, but it was introduced and rushed through the legislative process in just one week with little opportunity for thorough vetting to identify possible flaws. Because of this rush, it was and is widely understood that clean up legislation would be necessary before the law goes into effect in June 2020.

One of those issues for clean-up is a flaw in the law’s drafting that would hinder tailored online advertising by prohibiting the sharing of technical information required to make online ads work. This was never the intent of CCPA and must be corrected this year.

This policy fix is needed to ensure the CCPA does not unintentionally prohibit the continued use of internet advertising tailored to the specific interests of consumers. Tailored ads are delivered using unique identifying numbers attached to computers, tablets and phones and do not rely on sensitive information such as an individual’s name, address, social security number or banking information.

The fix also 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 show targeted ads to that consumer, so long as providing those ads only relies on sharing this technical data, not any sensitive personal information.

If ad targeting becomes more difficult or impossible, services we get for free today could start costing money. Imagine having to pay every time you search the internet, use an app to get directions, or check email or social media. These costs could quickly add up and create a growing gap of available education and employment opportunities between the haves and have-nots in California.

We can protect the privacy of consumers’ sensitive personal information without destroying all the progress made to close the digital divide.

We must ensure continued equal and free access to the internet for all Californians.

Dr. Fred Calhoun, a Buena Park resident, is president of the NAACP, Orange County Branch. He has previously served with and the National Association for Equal Justice in America.