The Week in Tech: Why Californians Have Better Privacy Protections

Each week, we review the week’s news, offering analysis about the most important developments in the tech industry.

Greetings from New York Times HQ in Midtown Manhattan. I’m Natasha Singer, a tech reporter covering privacy, and I’m bringing you the week’s tech news.

While many eyes were focused on the impeachment saga playing out in Washington, one person in San Francisco was taking on the entire tech industry. Again.

In 2017, Alastair Mactaggart, a wealthy real estate developer, founded and started financing a push for data rights for Californians. The effort led California lawmakers to enact the nation’s most comprehensive state consumer privacy law last year. Ever since then, tech companies and industry groups have maneuvered to water down its consumer protections.

Now Mr. Mactaggart is back with a new campaign.

He’s starting a ballot initiative that would amend the new law, the California Consumer Privacy Act, which takes effect on Jan. 1. He wants broader data control rights for Californians and new requirements on companies.

Among other things, his amendments would triple the law’s fines for violations of children’s privacy.

The ballot initiative also has a political component. It would require companies that profited from using Californians’ personal data for election influence campaigns to disclose their practices to consumers and the state authorities.

When it comes to privacy protections, it seems, Californians have a big advantage over many other Americans. And not just because California was the first state to pass laws requiring companies to disclose data breaches and the first to grant minors the right to erase their online posts and photos.

The privacy laws illustrate differing governmental views on citizens’ rights.

The United States Constitution, for instance, does not explicitly grant an inalienable right to privacy. Although the Fourth Amendment protects people from unreasonable government searches and seizure, it does not safeguard us against intrusive and ubiquitous snooping by tech giants and other corporations.

The Constitution of California, however, grants a right to privacy — putting it on equal footing with the rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

The Charter of European Union goes even further. It recognizes privacy and, separately, the protection of personal data as fundamental human rights.

“If you think about our other fundamental rights as a country, no one is spending millions and millions of dollars trying to undermine the First Amendment or the freedom of religion,” Mr. Mactaggart told me. “But people are actually spending hundreds of millions of dollars trying to undermine privacy because there’s so much money in it for corporations.”

For more practical tips on protecting your privacy, read my colleague Brian X. Chen’s new column on how to use Apple’s new privacy tools.

While Mr. Mactaggart was working to expand the right to privacy in California, Europe’s highest court issued landmark decisions narrowing it.

The rulings involved a law, popularly known as the “right to be forgotten,” which gives people in the European Union a legal means to delete certain personal information about them online. In practical terms, that means Europeans can use their right to be forgotten to require Google and other search engines to delete links to news articles or sites containing personal details about them that are outdated, inaccurate or not in the public interest.

But on Tuesday, as my colleague Adam Satariano reported from London, the European Court of Justice ruled that the right to be forgotten does not apply outside the European Union. The court also said the right to delete certain personal data must be balanced against the public’s right to know.

The ruling was a victory for Google and other search engines, Adam wrote. It means that the tech giant will not be required to take down links outside the European Union. It may also give Google and other companies more leeway to refuse certain deletion requests in the name of the public interest.

But defending the public’s right to know can also have intended consequences.

In a riveting article, Adam profiled a journalist in Italy, Alessandro Biancardi, who lost a legal battle to preserve an article about a pair of brawling brothers. The story covered the stabbing of one brother by another at a seaside restaurant.

The brother who was stabbed wanted the article about the incident deleted and sued the journalist, citing his right to be forgotten, Adam reported. The journalist, however, refused to take down the article.

The European court’s new ruling limiting the right to be forgotten may help local publications in the European Union defend and preserve such news coverage.

But for Mr. Biancardi, it is too late.

The journalist lost the lawsuit over the article about the brawling brothers. Faced with many other privacy and article-deletion demands, including 40 lawsuits, Mr. Biancardi shut down his news site last year.

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