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Data privacy: CT Senate votes to regulate the buying and selling of you

Sen. James Maroney in the Connecticut Senate.
Sen. James Maroney in the Connecticut Senate.

Connecticut moved Wednesday toward joining the growing list of states acting to protect consumer data with the Senate’s unanimous passage of a bill that now goes to the House.

The failure of Congress to pass federal privacy legislation has defaulted the issue to state legislatures in California, Colorado, Virginia and now Connecticut, which have had to gingerly approach regulating digital commerce that cross state lines.

Senate Bill 6 would let consumers see which companies are collecting their data and opt out of sales or sharing of that information. Consumers under 16 would have to opt in to data collection.

The final version of the bill is the product of negotiations with industry groups initially opposed to the evolving state-by-state approach and merchants fearful of liability for the actions of web designers or payment processors.

Sen. James Maroney, D-Milford, the co-chair of the General Law Committee, was credited by colleagues in both parties for doggedly leading working groups that produced a consensus on an endlessly complex area of regulatory law.

The fruit of that labor was a genial debate geared to illuminating the workings of the legislation, followed by a 35-0 vote.

The bill is a recognition of the ubiquity of data collection. Our phones and smart watches silently record our movements. Our purchases and internet and TV habits are logged. Our joys and sorrows are posted on social media.

The average child can expect their parents to post 1,300 photos of them on social media by their 13th birthday, Maroney said. And that child will have 70,000 interactions on social media by their teen years.

“Unfortunately, we cannot change any of this,” he said. “The genie is out of the bottle. It would be nearly impossible to put it back in. What we’re doing today is simply saying that Connecticut residents have the right to know what data is being collected about them, how it is being used, and to ask companies to tell companies not to sell their data.”

The bill gives consumers the ability to opt out on the collection of relatively benign data, such as their favorite television shows or dessert. It requires an opt in for more sensitive data to be tracked, such locator data.

“We also tell companies that they cannot sell the data of children under the age of 16 without them opting in — some of the strongest privacy protections for children in the country,” Maroney said.

Companies can continue to collect data used exclusively for the improvement of their products, so long as that data is not shared with third parties, he said.

Sen. Henri Martin, R-Bristol, called the debate an education and the bill one of the most important of the session, one whose provisions he would share with his constituents.

“We have a crisis of privacy in our country right now,” said Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, who first tackled the issue in 2017. “People, at this point, have no expectation of any privacy anymore, and there’s something fundamentally wrong with that. People don’t have an expectation of privacy even in their own homes, whether they think the TV is watching them or their smart speaker is listening to them, or their phone is listening to them.”

Maroney said national privacy advocates had been pushing for passage of the Connecticut bill, seeing it as one of the stronger measures. The national goal, he said, is a critical mass of state laws that provide useful guardrails and not merely provide lip service to protecting privacy.

The states have filled a void left by congressional inaction.

“We have waited and waited and waited for the federal government to do something. And they haven’t done anything. They haven’t acted,” Duff said.

Maroney said he has worked with lawmakers in other states for more than a year, trading ideas and negotiating standards with a wide variety of industry groups, nationally and in Connecticut.

He likened the Connecticut bill to one passed in Colorado — less stringent than California’s while stronger than many others. The hospitals and restaurants signed off on the final language in recent days, clearing the way for passage, he said.

Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, and Sen. Ryan Fazio, R-Greenwich, said Maroney’s working group has produced an impressive piece of legislation, given the complexities of digital commerce and the competing interests of stakeholders.

But both noted that other perhaps more challenging digital terrain remains to be explored: the impact of social media on children.

“This bill is a starting point,” Anwar said.

One of the Republicans who complimented Maroney also noted that passage of the bill is a beginning, not an end to efforts to protect consumers in a time when an hour rarely passes without leaving a digital footprint.

“What we’re trying to do here is extremely complex,” said Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield. “This is a good initial start, but obviously it continues to be a significant work in progress.”

Maroney replied, “I would acknowledge that technology advances faster than our ability to regulate it.”

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