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Jackie Speier offers online, financial privacy bills

Worried that Facebook, Google or some other online entity is collecting, using and sharing data on your online activities? Rep. Jackie Speier says she has your back, with one of two bills she introduced today aimed at protecting people’s personal information.

The Do Not Track Me Online Act of 2011 (H.R. 654) aims to give consumers the ability to prevent the collection and use of data on their online activities, directing the Federal Trade Commission to develop standards for a “Do Not Track” mechanism so people can choose upfront to opt out of the collection, use or sale of their online activities, and require covered entities to respect the consumer’s choice. Failure to do so would be considered an unfair or deceptive act punishable by law. The covered entity would have to disclose its collection and sharing practices, including with whom the information is shared. The bill would allow the FTC to exempt commonly accepted commercial practices like the collection of information for billing purposes.

“People have a right to surf the web without Big Brother watching their every move and announcing it to the world,” said Speier, D-Hillsborough. “The internet marketplace has matured, and it is time for consumers’ protections to keep pace.”

Speier cited a USA Today poll released Tuesday that showed that 70 percent of Facebook members and 52 percent of Google users say they are either “somewhat” or “very concerned” about their privacy.

“It’s crucial that Americans have as much control over their online privacy as possible and this bill is a welcome and important first step toward that goal,” American Civil Liberties Union Legislative Counsel Christopher Calabrese said. “Signing on to the Internet shouldn’t mean signing away your privacy. Americans must have a mechanism in place to opt out of having their online habits tracked so that they can protect their most sensitive information. A ‘do not track’ list is a logical and common sense place to start. We urge the House to make this bill a priority.”

Speier also introduced the Financial Information Privacy Act of 2011 (H.R. 653), which aims to give consumers control of their own financial information. The bill mirrors a California law Speier steered to passage that prevents financial institutions from sharing or selling personally identifiable nonpublic information with affiliates without an opportunity to opt-out, or in the case of unaffiliated third parties, a requirement that consumers opt-in.

“Because of the law we passed in California, consumers now have the clear and simple ability to prevent financial institutions from sharing their personal information,” Speier said. “Every American deserves that right.”

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Yee’s phone-book bill bites the dust

Remember how state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, announced in February a bill to stop doorstep delivery of telephone directories in California unless a customer opts in to receive it? Well, even after being softened so that it merely would have strengthened already-existing rules to allow customers to opt out, the bill now is as dead as the trees those books are printed on, and Yee says a telecommunications giant is to blame.

rrrrrripYee said Californians Against Waste, Environment California, Natural Resources Defense Council, Planning and Conservation League, and the Sierra Club agreed with him that Unused phonebooks are a major source of waste and a significant environmental burden for local municipalities, but AT&T convinced his legislative peers otherwise. SB 920 went down to defeat on the state Senate floor today on a 12-18 vote.

“AT&T put their own financial interests before the interests of their customers,” Yee said in a statement issued afterward. “At a time when we are looking for ways to reduce our carbon footprint, Californians deserved a choice and the opportunity to opt-out of receiving a directory. Killing this bill will result in further degradation of our environment, a loss in much-needed local resources, and millions of consumers forced to accept unneeded and unwanted phonebooks.”

More than 78 million telephone directories are distributed annually to California business and residential telephone consumers. The Product Stewardship Institute says telephone books represent 660,000 tons of waste per year, with local governments bearing the costs to recycle or otherwise dispose of them. Yee cites a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report which says not publishing a phone book reduces greenhouse gases by about three times as much as recycling.

The California Chamber of Commerce had argued against the bill, saying these directories are still the main source of phone-number information for consumers, especially those over age 45 and those with income under $25,000 per year. It also said the bill unfairly saddles the phone companies with responsibility to ensure no other, third-party directories are delivered to customers who haven’t opted in. And, it said, doing away with the books would both hurt small businesses that advertise in the directories and diminish the market for recycled paper.

UPDATE @ 5:07 P.M. MONDAY 6/7: The Yellow Pages Association – a trade organization representing an industry worth an estimated $12 billion in the United States – weighed in, calling the bill’s defeat good riddance.

The group said the bill would’ve added layers of government regulation on companies that help small businesses market themselves, employ thousands of Californians and contribute millions in state taxes.

“The defeat of this legislation is welcome news to local businesses that rely on directory advertising to get customers in the door during this difficult economy,” YPA President Neg Norton said in a news release. “We’re pleased that California officials made the right decision by rejecting unnecessary government regulation on companies that help small businesses market themselves and risk thousands of jobs and millions in state taxes from directory publishers.”

The YPA says almost three of every four California adults used the print Yellow Pages at least once in the past year for local information, according to research released in March by an independent marketing reseach firm.; one in three used it at least once in the past week. Yee’s urban constituency is more online-savvy, the group noted, but the bill overlooked the needs of suburban and rural users. And an industry website provides a tool for people wishing to limit or stop home delivery.

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What the “Yes on 8” campaign will and won’t say

Standing there as the “Yes on 8” rally outside Oakland’s Foothill Missionary Baptist Church began to wind down today, I noticed a gentleman in the crowd approach an elderly woman who was holding a “Gay marriage = legal perversion” sign. I eavesdropped – hey, that’s my job – as he told her he agreed with her sign completely, but he urged her to ditch it and just use a “Yes on 8” sign instead because her homemade sign’s sentiment might turn off some voters.

Is saying one thing but meaning another common in political campaigns of all kinds? Certainly. Is it disingenuous? You bet.

It seems to be a similar situation with the “Yes on 8” campaign’s focus on what would be taught to California’s public schoolchildren should this measure fail.

They note that in Massachusetts, where same-sex marriage has been legal since 2004, parents can’t “opt out” from having their children hear about same-sex marriage in public school. That’s true; a federal judge there ruled so, and was affirmed by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this year.

“Public schools are not obliged to shield individual students from ideas which potentially are religiously offensive, particularly when the school imposes no requirement that the student agree with or affirm those ideas, or even participate in discussions about them,” the appeals court wrote.

Proposition 8’s proponents and opponents are going back and forth now on whether California law will allow an opt-out. As I’ve noted before, California Education Code section 51240 says:

(a) If any part of a school’s instruction in health conflicts with the religious training and beliefs of a parent or guardian of a pupil, the pupil, upon written request of the parent or guardian, shall be excused from the part of the instruction that conflicts with the religious training and beliefs.
(b) For purposes of this section, “religious training and beliefs” includes personal moral convictions.

Another section, 51932(b), might exempt “instruction or materials that discuss gender, sexual orientation, or family life and do not discuss human reproductive organs and their functions” from an opt-out, but that might only apply to the California Comprehensive Sexual Health and HIV/AIDS Prevention Education Act, a whole separate section of the code enacted in 2004. I’m not sure.

Yet there’s a deeper and more important question here than intricacies of the Education Code – a question about what our public schools are supposed to be.

“Public schools often walk a tightrope between the many competing constitutional demands made by parents, students, teachers, and the schools’ other constituents… The balance the school struck here does not offend the Free Exercise or Due Process Clauses of the U.S. Constitution,” the appeals court wrote in the Massachusetts case. “We do not suggest that the school’s choice of books for young students has not deeply offended the plaintiffs’ sincerely held religious beliefs. If the school system has been insufficiently sensitive to such religious beliefs, the plaintiffs may seek recourse to the normal political processes for change in the town and state. They are not entitled to a federal judicial remedy under the U.S. Constitution.”

In other words, if you don’t like the curriculum, go petition your school board or run for office but don’t come crying to the courts. And the bigger picture is that public schools are not supposed to be beholden to religious beliefs; they’re supposed to teach the law of the land, the world as it is.

Right now, same-sex marriage is legal in California; the state Supreme Court in May ruled 4-3 that state law’s bans on the practice were unconstitutional, and an estimated 11,000 same-sex couples have tied the knot here since then.

Same-sex marriage foes often refer to the California Supreme Court’s majority and the judges who decided the Massachusetts case as “activist judges,” but that’s usually just what a lawsuit’s losers call judges who ruled against them. For the record, the California Supreme Court’s opinion was written by Chief Justice Ronald George, an appointee of Republican Gov. Pete Wilson; he was joined by justices Joyce Kennard (appointed by Republican Gov. George Deukmejian), Kathryn Werdegar (Wilson, again) and Carlos Moreno (Democratic Gov. Gray Davis). And in the Massachusetts case, the trial judge was a Reagan appointee while one of the appellate judges was a George H.W. Bush appointee, one a Clinton appointee and one a George W. Bush appointee; their ruling was unanimous, and the U.S. Supreme Court this month refused to review it.

Activists one and all? Hardly. They’re jurists interpreting and state and federal laws and constitutions, as their job descriptions entail.

Hence Proposition 8, which would render the state Supreme Court’s ruling moot by amending the state constitution to explicitly revoke the right that the court recognized in May.

Now, parents will always remain free to raise their children in whatever religious and moral tradition they choose; in fact, we can probably all agree that more parents should be more active in doing so rather than relying on schools, television, the streets to raise their kids.

But public schools are public spaces in which all children are supposed to be educated in common, not in individual families’ religious and moral beliefs. Would Jewish parents who keep a kosher kitchen get a heads-up before their child’s class reads a story about eating cheeseburgers? Of course not.

Public schools teach society’s laws and norms. If same-sex marriage remains the law of the land after Nov. 4, that’s what kids should learn; if it’s banned, that’s what kids should learn. It’ll be up to their parents, as it always has been, to fill in the blanks at home.

What the “Yes on 8” campaign is really saying is that the right to same-sex marriage must be revoked now because if it’s not, their kids will learn in public school that their parents’ views don’t jibe with the law of the land. Perhaps that’s not a conversation they relish having with their kids.

And to let any parents pull a child out of any discussion of other thoughts, lifestyles and beliefs creates a “boy in the bubble” scenario, a sort of societal sensory deprivation tank that defeats public schools’ very purpose.

If California voters see fit to revoke a constitutional right recognized by our Supreme Court this Nov. 4, so be it – that’s the choice we face; I voice no opinion on that here. But don’t believe for a minute that we’re just doing it for public schoolchildren – as someone who has seen this battle and this campaign unfold, I just don’t think it’s so.