Man behind California privacy law talks about the need for tighter reins on social-media firms

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Five years ago, California real estate developer Alistair McTaggart began a discovery that astonished his friends: He wanted to rein in the privacy-invading practices of large technology companies, many of them located in his home state. His advocacy efforts have yielded the most comprehensive privacy law in the United States – the California privacy rights law that is likely to become the de facto US national standard for companies such as Facebook and Google.

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So Mr. McTaggart watched with particular interest this week, when Facebook whistle-blower Frances Hogen testified before the US Senate, opening a window on how the social-media giant used its algorithms and vast Internet reach. is, she said, “harm children, incites division and undermines our democracy.” (Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in response that the company he founded “cares deeply about issues such as safety, well-being and mental health.”)

Now, Mr. McTaggart is warning that more needs to be done. His conversation with This Week has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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After what we’ve seen over the past few weeks, what other measures do you think internet technology companies need to take in response?

Currently in the United States, it is legal for a company to attempt to influence the outcome of an election. This is the case of Citizen United. If you’re a company and you fund someone’s campaign, you really have to report it. But if a company doesn’t coordinate with a campaign or candidate, they don’t have to report anything, because they’re not theoretically influencing the vote. Because 10 years ago there was nothing a company could do. Are they going to raise the price of gas or not stock shelves with goods?

Now, though, think about what Facebook can do by influencing your feed and changing the news you see. Not Fake News – We are just going to show you different news. And the news that we’re going to show you is going to be the predominance of bad things [U.S. President Joe] Biden. If they do so openly – a group of engineers are doing this – as long as they don’t coordinate with the campaign, no disclosure is required.

The power to influence elections is extraordinary. You could also argue that they have a fiduciary responsibility to do so – if it is in compliance with the law and it is in their best interest. I think it’s really dangerous.

I think what is banning them right now is more than the law. I’m intrigued about that, especially when you look at how often Facebook hasn’t learned from its past errors. If they are a company like this, what can they do in the future? Zuckerberg was literally on a companywide call where he said if [Democratic presidential hopeful Elizabeth] Warren elected, this is a threat to our very existence. So we know that he wants him not to get elected. Didn’t you use your platform to select him? How do we even know?

A rule of thumb that can be easily applied to traditional news media, no?

No. If I pick up in British Columbia, it’s theoretically the same Granthshala and Mail as it is in PEI. If I’m Asian or black or white, it’s the same Granthshala and mail. The real issue here is that your experience with Facebook is completely different from mine, and they can really change it for everyone. This is very harmful here.

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You’ve spent years thinking about privacy issues and technology companies. What was special for you from Francis Haugen’s testimony this week?

I have a small daughter. The assumption that you may be aware that your product is harmful to young people in many ways and you may be following a line, “How do we get more youth on the product?” It really reminds you of the tobacco companies, where they were, “We have to engage the youth to attract them.”

Are you concerned that Facebook and others will comply with California law in California but maintain existing practices elsewhere?

I think it’s going to be a shaky future for a company to say to a resident in Ohio, “I’m sorry, you can’t stop us from selling your information. But your brother-in-law in Fresno, yeah – he has that right.” Is.”

What legal changes do you want to see in terms of protecting elections from social media companies?

The easiest way to do this, which I would like to do, is to let me know if you use my personal information in an attempt to alter the outcome of an election. If they had to say, “We used your information to select Biden,” I really think they wouldn’t, because that would be too much public criticism of them.

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So I guess sunlight would be a disinfectant.

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