Our online actions are revealing more and more about our real-life personalities and preferences. The advertisements we see online are presented based on the information companies have about us. This is possible because of the vast troves of information about us that are collected and sold to third parties by websites like Facebook and Google. The only way to prevent your information from being collected is to stay offline.
There is no way to find out what information of yours is being collected, and who has it. California Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal is seeking to change that. In a step toward a more transparent online world, Lowenthal has proposed a bill that would require any California-based company to provide anyone who requests it with a record of what third parties they have shared personal information with in the past year, and exactly what information they have shared. Companies must send the information within 30 days.
This bill, if passed, is a big step in the right direction. The Internet is a relatively new phenomenon, and regulators have lagged behind innovative companies seeking to exploit it. We still don’t fully understand just how much is possible with the information that can, and is, being collected, and it is important that corporations are not allowed to use this information in an unregulated way.
Most would agree that it is reasonable that Internet users have the right to know who has their information and what it says about them. A more interesting question is whether this bill goes far enough. Many would say that these companies have no right to collect this information. But the information can only be collected if one chooses to use a certain website. If a company makes it clear — and, to be fair, many today don’t — that it intends to record information from your computer when you use the site, it seems unreasonable to complain. If you don’t want your information collected, the argument goes, don’t use the site. One flaw in this reasoning is that the corporate world is increasingly digital — sites like LinkedIn and others are necessary for success in business and in other professions.
However, such complaints are not enough to push for restrictions on data collecting. If there are a large number of people who are so against data collection, there is a niche for a social media site that doesn’t collect personal information. It isn’t the government’s job to restrict data-collection, but it is the government’s responsibility to make sure that all sites that do so disclose beforehand that they collect data. This bill is a necessary change to the current system, as it will allow users to find out exactly who knows what about them. A federal bill of similar intent would unify Internet law and prevent companies from escaping states’ attempts to regulate data collection.
A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, April 11 print edition. Ian Mark is a staff columnist. Email him at [email protected]