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Top California Lawmaker to Focus on Privacy for Abortion, Kids

Source: Bloomberg Law

The top California lawmaker in charge of privacy legislation will focus on protecting children online and safeguarding those seeking reproductive health care as a core part of his agenda this session at the state legislature.

Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel (D), chair of the state Assembly Privacy and Consumer Protection Committee, outlined those measures as his main priorities in an interview Tuesday. His panel will likely be a focus by tech companies concerned about further regulation amid increased scrutiny of privacy rights.

His remarks come as businesses are adapting to California’s updated comprehensive privacy law. Fellow colleagues have filed numerous bills to further strengthen protections and fill in any gaps not covered by the law.

Gabriel’s panel also will examine and debate issues such as artificial intelligence, enforcement of the state’s privacy law, as well as efforts to protect data regardless of citizenship status with a focus on those who are undocumented.

The legislature is on track to butt heads again with the tech industry over the best way to keep children safe on the internet, Gabriel acknowledged. The effort comes as there also is a focus at the federal level with President Joe Biden mentioning enhanced online privacy rights for children during his State of the Union speech last month.

“A lot of that (focus) has been regulation of social media companies,” said Gabriel. “We have a mental health crisis among young people in this country.”

Gabriel last year successfully pushed through passage of a content moderation bill. But other bills—such as one letting parents sue social media platforms for child addiction—didn’t withstand the pressure of lobbying by Big Tech. Despite that setback, state Sen. Nancy Skinner (D) introduced a similar bill this year.

Another new piece of legislation, named the Let Parents Choose Protection Act, would require social media to make available programming to third-party software companies, so that those companies can manage a child’s online interactions and other settings.

Industry lobbyists are likely to oppose such measures. One industry group has already sued the state to block the
California Age-Appropriate Design Code Act, a first-in-the-nation children’s online privacy law. Those attempts won’t deter his colleagues, said Gabriel.

“The fact that some of these bills have not gone the distance last year, that doesn’t mean that they won’t go the distance this year, or in future sessions, because these are issues that are really, really important to the health and safety of young people in the state,” he said.

Gabriel said some of the legislation could even help social media companies’ businesses, so parents feel more confident letting their children go online with additional protections.

Beyond regulating social media, Gabriel is backing legislation that would require a closer look at improving how students are taught internet safety and media literacy.

A number of privacy bills this year are aimed at safeguarding reproductive health information in light of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade. California’s state constitution contains a right to abortion, but lawmakers want to close any gaps that might hinder someone from seeking abortion services.

“It’s putting all of the pieces to the puzzle together to create a strong wall of protection,” said Gabriel. “We are going to keep thinking about what is it that we need to do to make sure that we are protecting the right in every way possible.”

Some of those abortion-related privacy bills are still being drafted, but they would generally restrict what information can be shared outside a patient’s consent. For instance, one bill (AB 254) would explicitly include reproductive health information under the definition of “medical information,” so that medical and health businesses can’t share or use the information for anything other than to provide service.

The state’s privacy law exempts privacy protections for personal information that has to be shared to comply with law, a court order, law enforcement and emergency action from state agencies. But another piece of legislation,
AB 1194, would clarify that personal information related to seeking abortions or contraceptive care don’t qualify for that exemption.

“We have a number of states where abortion is now illegal; they’re now looking to extend their jurisdiction,” said Gabriel. “We want to make California a beacon of reproductive freedom. We know that people will come here to seek abortion and reproductive health care.”

Updates in 2020 to the state’s comprehensive privacy law created the California Privacy Protection Agency, which oversees privacy regulations and enforcement. The agency is writing regulations to implement those updates, but has missed deadlines to finish those rules, which has irked businesses that say there isn’t enough time to comply.
Business groups have been asking for a one-year delay to the enforcement of those updates under the California Privacy Rights Act, which would require legislation. Currently, enforcement is scheduled to begin July.

Gabriel didn’t say whether he’d support such a bill, but expressed sympathy to those frustrated by the length of time. “I’m disappointed that the agency hasn’t met its deadlines,” he said. “I understand it’s a complicated situation to set up an agency, but it’s not fair to people in the state” when the government doesn’t meet its own deadlines.
The agency has struggled to fully staff up and is hiring personnel in preparation for the July 1 start date when enforcement begins.

If the agency isn’t ready by then, one of Gabriel’s bills would help. It would extend the amount of time the state attorney general can enforce state privacy law to five years after a violation occurred, matching the same period the agency can take action.

“Even when the privacy agency is fully staffed and operating at capacity, and doing all the things that everybody hopes and expects, we still want the attorney general to be empowered,” he said.

Gabriel said he also will sponsor legislation that would include immigration and citizenship status under the state’s definition of sensitive personal information that is covered under the law. If an undocumented immigrant has to share that information when using an online service, for example, the measure would make sure that information isn’t shared without strong protections.

“Sometimes undocumented folks are reticent to access certain services, because they’re worried that sensitive personal information can be shared,” Gabriel said. “It just provides an additional layer of protection to folks.”