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The Washington state legislature will convene next Monday for its annual session.  The legislature will not pass a big operating budget this year in the 60-day session, but it will make some adjustments based on the state’s current economy and tax revenue collections.

The state Economic and Revenue Forecast Council — the agency charged with making economic forecasts — noted in their latest report that Washington’s economy is progressing even as the global economy concerns many economists.

Transportation funding and finishing major projects will be among the most debated topics this session, but with no real outcome in sight.  Gov. Jay Inslee and many legislators have been trying to devise a package of tax and revenue increases for transportation, a list of projects and cost saving reforms since last November but have not yet come up with a final agreed-to package.  It is very iffy at this point; much like immigration reform in Congress.  Everyone knows it needs to be done, there are a lot of moving parts and there is some fear about the political ramifications if a deal is done.

For the state’s tech sector, legislation regulating privacy will take center stage. Three legislative proposals — HB 2180 “enacting the digital world privacy actHB 2178, regulating UAVs and HB 2179, limiting government surveillance by extraordinary sensing devices — were just this week introduced by  Rep. Jeff Morris, Chair of the House Tech and Economic Development Committee. A fourth draft proposal also is worth discussing.

The first bill is similar to California’s “eraser” law.  The idea here is that “users” of online services, web sites, online or mobile applications can request to have “content or information” removed that has been posted on a web site, even if that content was posted by someone other than the user.  There are some exceptions to that provision, but compliance with the proposal can be complicated.

On social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, users can already delete their own posts. But once they are in the public domain, retweeted or reposted, erasing those posts is not always possible.

Another draft proposal by Rep. Morris that has not yet been introduced deals with disclosure of personal information by businesses.

This proposal applies to any business in Washington that “collects and maintains computerized data that includes personal information.”  In other words, just about everybody is covered from banks to hospitals to the local pizza delivery outlet.

Businesses are required to: provide each consumer with a notice explaining what information is being collected, the purpose of collecting personal information, how the information will be used, obtain “informed consent” from the consumer for use and disclosure of personal information.  Third party recipients of personal information are also bound by these provisions.

“Informed consent” is defined, but the language is fraught with complications that could lead to some serious liability for businesses not in compliance.  Since the proposal does not exempt any business, violations are sure to occur if this proposal becomes law.

This is one of the difficulties of forging public policy.

Clearly, privacy is a big concern for consumers today.  It is also evident that personal information is the valuable commodity of the Internet age, so it behooves consumers, business and government to have clear rules on what is allowed and what is not and what businesses have an obligation to do with information given voluntarily by consumers.

At the same time, government regulation should not add unnecessary obstacles to engaging in commerce.  Laws and regulations need to be crafted in such a way so that businesses know how to comply without undue cost or liability.  Businesses need to be responsible in how they handle personal information so that it is secure, only used by those with a need for it. Disclosures to consumers need to be in readable and understandable formats.

Lew McMurran
Lew McMurran

What would not be useful is a Washington specific law that hamstrung in-state businesses or inadvertently hurt consumers.

Patchwork state laws, especially on topics that attempt to regulate a global entity like the Internet can be problematic to comply with.

That’s why the California proposals are so dangerous. (This Forbes article explains the challenges of an overly active state legislature).

While these issues are indeed important, state regulation of online practices simply becomes an exercise in writing complicated “privacy policies” that are routinely ignored by consumers.

Is there a place for state regulation of personal information collection? Or should it be left to the feds? Or even an international body?  Either way, the state’s businesses will need to weigh in when these issues get debated in Olympia starting next week.

Lew McMurran has been lobbying for various companies, local government and trade associations for the last 24 years, the last 13 of which were spent with WSA/WTIA, representing the tech industry in Olympia. He is now an independent government relations consultant working with tech companies on issues related to state and local government. Follow him on Twitter @lewismcmurran.

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