Bill may replace Public Records Act

By: M.L. Stein Publishers oppose bill that would make it harder to collect personal information

Publishers are joining a big chunk of the business community in opposition to a California bill that would create broad new protections against the collection and use of personal information.
The bill is so sweeping that it would supersede the Public Records Act or any other access law. It would be unlawful for any private entity, including newspapers, to gather personal information about someone without their consent unless there is specific legal authorization. It would further require the information gatherer to reveal how it was obtained, how it will be used, and to whom it will be disclosed. Moreover, organizations that possess personal information must ensure its accuracy and security. The measure embodies both criminal and civil liabilities, including $5,000 fines and $5,000 in civil penalties. An ombudsman would be appointed to assist individuals with privacy complaints.
Newspapers cannot base news judgment on the wishes of those who make the news, California Newspaper Publishers Association general counsel Thomas Newton said in an interview after meeting recently in Sacramento with lobbyists for a slew of various businesses, including direct marketers, book publishers, the credit reporting industry, title insurance companies, private investigators, and manufacturers, along with representatives of colleges and universities. They meeting was hosted by the State Chamber of Commerce.
The main fear among the delegates is that the bill, S.B. 129, by State Sen. Steve Peace (D-El Cajon), would not only severely constrict access to public records but also would limit the uses to which the information could be put.
"The bill is essentially saying that government knows best how businesses should collect and maintain information," said Newton. "It will impact on every business in the state since it has the potential to curtail access to vast amounts of information. But newspapers will be especially hard hit because we depend on the Public Records Act to monitor government. Although everyone believes personal privacy is a good thing, too much of a good thing can have some very bad results for business and society. The bill will not work in the context of newspaper publishing."
There has been a mounting drumbeat in California for this kind of legislation in the past few years, Newton pointed out. He added, however, that the legislature and the public have heard only one side of the privacy issue, "primarily from those who believe that policies need to be radically changed to increase the individual's control over the collection and use of personal information."
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?(copyright: Editor & Publisher February 27, 1999) [Caption]


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