California online tracking, 'eraser button' bills set to alter online privacy

California’s governor on Monday signed into law a bill changing the way websites deal with Internet users under the age of 18.

A second bill still sitting on the Governor's desk, which he is likely to sign in the coming weeks, would require websites to tell all Internet users if and how they can opt out of online tracking.

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The state senate bill Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed Monday introduces an “eraser button” to protect minors surfing online by requiring sites to take down information posted by a minor upon request.

It also restricts what kind of products can be advertised to Internet users under the age of 18 on websites and apps directed at minors.

Supporters said the new law would allow young Internet users to get rid of embarrassing information on social media websites that could haunt them for years.

The signing of the bill into law “is a groundbreaking protection for our kids who often act impetuously with postings of ill-advised pictures or messages before they think through the consequences,” said the bill’s sponsor, State Senate President pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg.

The state assembly bill, which is expected to be signed into law in the coming weeks, A.B. 370, would require websites to indicate in their privacy policy how they respond to Do Not Track signals and “other mechanisms” consumers can use to opt out of online tracking.

Brown has until Oct. 13 to act on the Do Not Track bill. If he doesn’t act by then, the bill becomes law automatically. Observers expect Brown to sign the bill into law.

Privacy advocates are applauding the bills. Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, said the bills are necessary as regulators and lawmakers at the federal level are “failing to protect the privacy of teens" because they are "paralyzed by the clout of the big data lobby.”

The “eraser button” law “sends a signal that federal inaction on privacy — for adolescents and adults — is no longer an option,” he said.

The initial bills faced heavy criticism from members of the Internet industry. When first introduced, the two pieces of legislation were not technology neutral and would have harmed the online advertising ecosystem, according to technology lawyers who worked on the bills. 

New provisions in the bills, including broader language on Do Not Track mechanisms and listing which items can’t be advertised to minors, make the legislation more flexible.

The Do Not Track bill comes as online privacy discussions at the standards-setting World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) seem stalled. While previous versions of the bill could have hinged on the success of those discussions in producing a uniform Do Not Track mechanism, the final legislation is broader, making it technology neutral, observers say.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who worked on the bill, should be commended for her “focus on getting information into the hands of consumers about the tools available to them today,” NetChoice Policy Counsel Carl Szabo said.

This education-based approach is better “than trying to dictate policy, which has caused [the trouble] we’ve seen with the W3C Do Not Track process,” he said.

Jim Halpert, a technology lawyer who worked on the bills on behalf of the State Privacy and Security Coalition, agreed. 

The Do Not Track bill is written so that it “can evolve with technology over time,” he said. The final bill still “warn[s] consumers of third party tracking while being much more workable” for websites “than the bill that was introduced,” he said.

The “eraser button” law has also been sculpted to reflect the realities of the online ecosystem, Szabo said. While companies already take steps to accommodate users’ requests to have their own content taken down, this law “just gives them greater control,” he said.

The law still has its critics. In a Forbes blog post, Santa Clara University Law professor Eric Goldman said the bill is not clear about which websites must comply or when a user can request that content be taken down.