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State Legislatures Advance Bills Protecting Data Privacy

NOEL KING, HOST:

Lawmakers in Washington talk a lot about reining in technology companies, but they're not really doing anything. So state legislatures are trying. They've advanced dozens of bills, but making law means going up against Silicon Valley and its lobbyists. Here's NPR's Bobby Allyn.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Connecticut Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff was frustrated. Congress couldn't pass a bill protecting Americans' data, and he wanted Connecticut residents to know how and when they were being tracked online because right now, he says, there's a data privacy crisis.

BOB DUFF: And that is known to any American who has a phone, laptop or tablet or any type of device where all of a sudden they mention something, next thing you know, there's an ad for it.

ALLYN: So he introduced a bill last year that would allow people in Connecticut to opt out of data collection and to sue tech companies if they did it anyway. During a hearing for the bill, Duff looked around the room. It was packed. But he didn't see concerned citizens. Instead, he saw seat after seat filled with lobbyists paid by Facebook and Google and other tech companies.

DUFF: Lobbyists put the fear of God in the people, even by saying something like this bill would harm data collection during a public health emergency, which is far from the truth, and it's actually inaccurate.

ALLYN: His bill ultimately failed. The industry's leading trade group, the Internet Association, told Duff in a letter that the bill is, quote, "of significant concern. Having the right to sue," the group wrote, "would be a payday for trial lawyers and not help consumers safeguard their data." Now Duff has reintroduced the bill but caved by removing the right to sue tech companies. But he says he won't be giving up anything more otherwise...

DUFF: We'll only really be lipstick on a pig from a standpoint of it's an industry-written bill that has data privacy in the headline. But other than that, it does nothing.

ALLYN: Silicon Valley is setting up shop at state capitols across the country. Records show the big five tech companies have at least 14 registered lobbyists in Connecticut alone. It's a phenomenon that has been ramping up in recent years as states from Arkansas to Florida push bills looking to hem in the power of big tech. In response, the tech industry is pouring millions of dollars to get into the game of state politics.

ASHKAN SOLTANI: For two decades, industry would argue that self-regulation is sufficient and not to meddle with the golden goose that's the internet.

ALLYN: Ashkan Soltani is a data privacy advocate and a former Federal Trade Commission official. Now he says Silicon Valley views some type of regulation as unavoidable. Companies like Facebook have even publicly welcomed it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We support updated internet regulations to set new standards for data portability, privacy and elections. Learn more at...

ALLYN: Soltani is skeptical.

SOLTANI: They're not doing it out of the goodness of their heart. You know, kind of like a taekwondo move, they want to capture that momentum and then direct it into something that benefits them.

ALLYN: Several lobbyists and spokespeople for the companies declined to be interviewed for this story. Cathy Gellis, a San Francisco-area lawyer who specializes in tech policy, says some of the big tech pushback to state proposals has a point.

CATHY GELLIS: You don't want the internet to become a you-can't-get-there-from-here type of place. And with local regulation, that's what we risk.

ALLYN: She says regulations aimed at one thing can create unintended consequences someplace else for things like online commerce, speech and innovation. If companies have to follow one set of data tracking laws in one state and a whole other set in another, that's a nightmare for everyone. But it might just be what happens if Congress doesn't pass comprehensive internet reforms.

Bobby Allyn, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARLEY CARROLL'S "SEVEN CROWS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.