By CHRIS R. ALBON
Earlier this month, California lawmaker Ed Chau introduced a bill to the state’s legislature that many Daily Dot readers will love the sound of. The proposed law (PDF), Assembly Bill 242, would require that website privacy policies “be no more than 100 words and shall be written in clear and concise language at no greater than an eighth grade reading level” and declare “whether the personally identifiable information may be sold or shared with others.” Sounds brilliant, right? Don’t be so sure. The bill is bad—and, more importantly, a trap.
The problem with the bill itself was pointed out by ReadWrite’s Adam Popescu. He argues that while on the surface the bill seeks to help Internet citizens, it might actually have the exact opposite effect. Why? Because 100 words is not nearly enough space to both accurately and concretely convey to users how their information is being used. It is barely enough to scratch the surface.
And that’s not all: there is something even more dangerous about this bill.
A well-meaning law mandating the length and content of privacy policies opens the door to a law about the contents of the entire Terms of Service and maybe even to a law over user anonymity itself. That is the biggest problem.
So much of what makes the Internet great is its the freedom it provides. Yes, freedom—in the grand sense of supporting the Arab Spring and other social movements, but even freedom in the smaller sense, in allowing a LGBT teenager of heavily religious parents to learn about different viewpoints, or allowing a patient to anonymously connect with others with their condition. This freedom comes not from a political document mandating it, but rather the from absence of any mandate at all.
The Internet gives freedoms not through good governance, but through un-governance. The more the Internet is free from political control, the more it is able provide freedom to it's users. And, the encroachment of governments on the largely ungoverned frontier that is the Internet is the single greatest threat the Internet has faced in its short life.
A law mandating terse privacy policies is a bad idea. Ostensibly designed to help Internet users understand how their personal data is being used, sold, shared online, it will do none of these things. Rather it will do the opposite, create privacy policies too short to provide more than the vaguest statements about a user's privacy. More importantly, Assembly Bill 242 is a Trojan horse. It is one more attempt by states to enlarge their foothold in the digital domain; one more excuse for politicians to play network administrator. And we shouldn’t let them.
Chris R. Albon is a political scientist and writer on the global politics of science and technology. Presently, Chris leads the Governance Project at FrontlineSMS. Prior to FrontlineSMS, Chris earned a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of California, Davis.
Photo by Darcy McCarty/Flickr