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Commentary: Digital Fairness Act will help protect our online privacy

By: Allie Bohm Senior Policy Counsel, Policy & Catalina Cruz New York State Representative

We’ve come to expect that when we’re online, someone is always watching. We know companies track our every click, search, and video view, and many of us have become resigned to the idea that privacy doesn’t exist online. It’s no longer possible to participate in society without providing personal information to private companies and other third parties that may reveal the intimate details of our lives.

Public policy has not kept pace with the explosive growth of the digital world or the magnitude of its role in our lives. And our government leaders have failed to embrace a system-wide solution for a problem that affects everyone. Congress has yet to take up comprehensive privacy legislation, and, in the states where action has taken place, it has fallen far short of addressing the real-life risks and harms of exploited and commodified data.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. New York has a chance to set a new national privacy standard by passing the Digital Fairness Act.

People currently go online to search for jobs, housing, health care, loans, and even love. But it’s not an open market. Precisely targeted pricing, advertising, and other automated decision tools like algorithms determine a significant amount of the digital experience. They are used to exclude people of color, women, and older people from housing, credit, and employment opportunities in ways that would be unimaginable in the offline world.

During the 2016 election, personal information was even used to target advertisements to Black Americans urging them not to vote.

Privacy violations can lead to a range of harms, including theft, harassment, and public exposure of our intimate lives. Misuse and abuse of personal information in the digital age can limit people’s access to jobs or health care, exacerbate information disparities, and erode public trust and free expression. Well-founded privacy concerns can even make people decide to not participate in digital life or take advantage of online services.

The Digital Fairness Act, now pending in the state Legislature, will put control back in peoples’ hands. It requires businesses to ask for affirmative permission before personal information is captured or used. It puts hard limits on the use of biometric information – like your fingerprints or voice – and requires affirmative notice and opt-in consent before any surveillance technology in a consumer product is activated.

By requiring an opt-in model, the Digital Fairness Act enhances both privacy and individual control over personal information. This is particularly important for people who do not have the time or knowledge to go through the cumbersome process of changing a site’s default privacy settings — disproportionately, the elderly, the disabled, and for those whom English is not a first language.

Most importantly, the bill will help prevent companies from using algorithms and other automated systems to discriminate against people, and it gives communities a say over whether and how state and local governments use these tools.

In the absence of new privacy legislation, the digital landscape is under the control of powerful tech companies whose business models incentivize them to vacuum up as much information about us as possible. As recent revelations about Facebook have made abundantly clear, these companies cannot be trusted to govern themselves or to protect us.

We can’t afford to give up our privacy and our right to fair and equal treatment on and offline.

The Digital Fairness Act would let New Yorkers take control of their online lives and provide a roadmap for the rest of the country to do the same.

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