DRC_Dave Lieber

Dave Lieber

They swarmed.

Like angry wasps attacking a child who sat on the wrong campfire log (that happened to me when I was 10), lobbyists in Austin swarmed and stung so hard that when they were done the guts of a proposed consumer privacy protection bill were gone.

The line of foes was long: Insurance companies. Retailers. Landlords. AT&T. Chambers of commerce. Coalitions of online advertising groups.

They want details on you, where you shop, what you buy, what you search for on the web and so much more.

They’re not giving up their freedom to do what they want with your data without a fight. A big fight.

“Honestly, I’ve never seen anything like this opposition,” said Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, sponsor of House Bill 4390.

“Usually my bills get killed in the back. This time, it was, ‘We’re going to do it in front of you. We’re going to make you watch.’”

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Giovanni Capriglione

The bill would have protected your web data from being collected and sold without your permission. It blocked data surveillance by the social media giants and Internet companies. Or — it would have done that if the stinging wasps hadn’t come along.

How it died and who killed it is relevant because web privacy is one of the great issues of our time — now and into the future.

Actually, the bill didn’t die. It passed by a 138-3 vote in the House and drew only one negative vote in the Senate. It now awaits Gov. Abbott’s signature to become law.

But there’s nothing to celebrate. This is no victory. Wait until you hear what happened to it.

Lobbyists pounced

At first, all was quiet on the battle front. The lobbyists were not “super-engaged,” said Capriglione, known in the statehouse as Gio.

“There’s not much talk. Everyone thinks the bill is going to die.”

When Gio presented the bill to a House committee, he tried a shock tactic. He told several of his colleagues bits of personal information about themselves or their family members that he picked up searching the web.

“Your husband went to this high school, and his birthday is ... ,” Gio remembers telling one lawmaker. To another lawmaker, he commented on her trip to El Paso.

“They were absolutely stunned that anyone knows this information, let alone saying it in this committee,” Gio recalls.

The bill passed out of committee on a 9-0 vote, sending it to the House floor for debate.

Suddenly, it got serious. You could hear the buzzing swarm approaching.

“The lobbyists go nuts,” Gio said.

The Watchdog jumped in, steering public attention with my story, “If you forget to charge your phone every night, your insurance company might see you as high risk.”

That riled the wasps even more, Gio said.

Gio talked to House members and began gathering support. In the U.S., companies must disclose their privacy policies, and most do. But who reads them? There are hardly any rules about selling your data.

In Europe, the same companies are prohibited from selling data without permission. If they violate much stricter European privacy laws, they face fines of billions of euros.

Gio held a “stakeholders” meeting where interested parties sit down and try to negotiate a solution.

“They flew people in from Washington, D.C., from Boston, from all over the country,” Gio said.

“They said my legislation was bad. That it was horrible.”

Bill watered down

His bill, Gio said, is based on the concept that “all Texans should have a say in how their data is disclosed.”

What did his bill seek to do? Companies would need your permission to share your information. They’d have to give notice what they do with the information. Who buys it? What’s it used for?

When you close an account, they’d have to stop collecting on you. (Now, some keep going.)

Civil penalties for violations: up to $1 million.

Gio’s original bill was 15 pages. After the buzzing swarm, it got knocked down to — a mere five pages.

‘Advisory council’

The bill that passed requires companies to disclose a data breach to consumers within 60 days.

The bill also creates a Texas Privacy Protection Advisory Council “to study data privacy laws in this state, other states and relevant foreign jurisdictions.”

Five members are appointed by the House speaker, five by the lieutenant governor and five by the governor. Their task is to make recommendations by September 2020. The council would be abolished by the end of next year.

Meanwhile, your data goes everywhere.

“I don’t consider it a loss,” Gio says. “This is a difficult subject. There’s no way I get it right on my first try. You know what I’m saying?”

Sort of.

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