A Millionaire’s Quest to Reign in Facebook and Google And some of the lessons learned while battling Silicon Valley
An article written by Nicholas Confessore in the New York Times Magazine entitled The Unlikely Activists Who Took On Silicon Valley — and Won chronicles one man’s fight for data privacy regulation. The primary ‘unlikely activist’ who challenged Google and Facebook business practices is Alastair Mactaggart, a California real estate millionaire.
How and why did a family real estate millionaire become concerned about the data mining/privacy issue? Having dinner with a friend (software Google engineer),
Mactaggart asked his friend, half-seriously, if he should be worried about everything Google knew about him. “I expected one of those answers you get from airline pilots about plane crashes,” Mactaggart recalled recently. “You know — ‘Oh, there’s nothing to worry about.’ ” Instead, his friend told him there was plenty to worry about. If people really knew what we had on them, the Google engineer said, they would flip out.
Mactaggart started researching and
he discovered that the United States, unlike some countries, has no single, comprehensive law regulating the collection and use of personal data. The rules that did exist were largely established by the very companies that most relied on your data, in privacy policies and end-user agreements most people never actually read. He learned that there was no real limit on the information companies could collect or buy about him — and that just about everything they could collect or buy, they did.
This is a report about the tech industry’s data mining and its influence in Washington DC and state legislatures. The influence peddling extends also to non-governmental organizations which are created by the tech industry (and then funded by corporations) to ensure data privacy legislation is curtailed on the national and state level via intense lobbying and public relation campaigns. If you are concerned about Google’s ever encroaching reach into personal data and allowing third-parties access to it, you will want to read about Mactaggert’s experiences in trying to restrain Google’s and Facebook’s ability to access and profit from personal data.
The navigation of the political landscape to enact meaningful legislation has been difficult. What hurdles did Mactaggart encounter?
- It was difficult to establish allies in Washington for privacy safeguards against the tech industry: Google enjoyed particularly close ties to the Obama administration: Dozens of Google alumni would serve in the White House or elsewhere in the administration, and by one estimate Google representatives visited the White House an average of about once a week. But the Obama world had relationships with other firms too. Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, served on a high-level Obama advisory council on jobs and held a fund-raiser for Obama’s re-election campaign at her home in Atherton, Calif. The founders of Twitter, LinkedIn and the app developer Zynga together contributed more than $2 million to a pro-Obama super PAC.
- The Obama administration was keen on drafting tougher privacy guidelines, a “consumer-privacy bill of rights”, until the Secretary of Commerce, Chicago billionaire Penny Pritzker, derailed those plans: In early 2014, Pritzker traveled to Silicon Valley for a highly publicized listening tour. She hailed the tech industry as a model for government — a partner, not an antagonist. Data, she proclaimed, was “the fuel of the 21st century.”
- The influence of Google and Facebook was also apparent in state legislatures which impeded data privacy legislation: In Washington and in state capitals, this combination of wealth, prestige and ignorance had made the tech industry virtually unbeatable. They doled out campaign money to Republicans and Democrats alike. They had allies across the major think tanks and universities.
- Non-governmental groups were formed to fight data privacy legislation: the tech companies — and other industries dependent on free data — were preparing to crush him. In January, California’s Chamber of Commerce filed paperwork to register a group called the Committee to Protect California Jobs. The committee soon collected six-figure contributions from Facebook, Google and three of the country’s biggest internet service providers: Comcast, Verizon and AT&T.
- Natural allies from privacy foundations/groups did not join him because of Google’s and Facebook’s influence: Yet even as his canvassers racked up petition signatures from voters in the state, Mactaggart was being spurned by almost every prominent privacy group in the country. Like any other movement, the world of privacy experts has its radicals and moderates, feuds and schisms. Read the article to find out why national groups such as The Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union or Common Sense Kids Action refused to help in Mactaggert’s petition efforts.
This article will help readers identify the reasons data privacy bills die in state legislatures and even when some data laws are passed, Google and Facebook will lobby to change the laws for less strict data regulations in the next legislative session. State activists will appreciate the details the reporter include on how a responsive legislator suddenly becomes evasive and unresponsive on his own sponsored legislation.
What’s the takeaway from the article? Mactaggert sounds hopeful that the Googles and the Facebooks of the world can be reigned in via the system. Some of the comments from the readers worth pondering:
I feel like he really undercut his own efforts in the last paragraph (or maybe the author wanted to end it on a high note): the system didn’t work because it wanted to, it was forced to produce something because their mistakes got too big for regular people to ignore, was the product of a split between millionaires, and the state legislature cowardly accepted whatever their donors negotiated. No slow clap from me.
Terrific article. Now can you write one about what these corporations are collecting on even our youngest children in schools? Not just their test scores, but also their social-emotional state? For whose use—future employers, law enforcement? And with whose permission…our kindergarteners?
We consumers still have to play whack-a-mole one by one figuring out who has our data, name included, and is selling it or swapping it. But this is a start.
Do you have any stories of how data privacy laws have been hijacked in your state? Send us your experiences and they may be included in a planned follow up to Silicon’s Valley lobbying efforts in state legislatures.