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The Daily News of Los Angeles

SACRAMENTO – Lawmakers will begin a renewed effort this week to protect Californians’ privacy with a package of bills affecting Internet and cell-phone providers.

In the last year or two, the state has had several privacy protection laws overruled by the federal government, including ones that would limit the sharing of financial information and restrict spam e-mail.

“There’s never been a point in history when consumers were more at risk for invasions of privacy and identity theft,” said Jerry Flanagan, a consumer advocate with the Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.

“It’s a culmination of two things. One is the incredible advances in database and Internet technologies that allow the free sharing of data quickly and sorting at lightning speed. That is coupled with the federal pre-emption of state privacy laws.”

On Tuesday, the Assembly Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hear a bill that would limit the ability of marketers to obtain medical information about consumers.

Another bill would force companies to disclose if customers’ private information has been accidentally released in non-electronic form. Current law already covers electronic security breaches but not, for example, a recent incident where a bank mailing machine error caused personal tax information to be mailed to the wrong addresses.

A bill that would require employers to tell employees if they are being electronically monitored – such as reading their e-mail or tracking their location through GPS devices – will be heard Wednesday in the Assembly Labor and Employment Committee.

And later in the month, the Assembly Judiciary Committee will hear a bill that would require mobile phone companies to get permission from customers before publishing their mobile numbers.

That bill, AB1733, is a reaction to a plan announced last month by the wireless industry to make about three-quarters of the 163 million mobile numbers in this country available publicly to anyone who dials 411.

Privacy advocates worry the next step could be selling those numbers to telemarketers, so every Viagra retailer or mortgage broker would be able to call or text message you at all hours of the day – even when you pay for incoming calls.

“If the cell phone industry is allowed to proceed with this plan, the next time you answer your cell phone you’re just as likely to get somebody selling carpet cleaning or the next-best gadget as well as a family member that you’re expecting a call from,” said Assemblywoman Sarah Reyes, D-Fresno, the bill’s co-author.

The bill does not yet provide any penalties if the companies fail to comply. AB1733 is expected to be heard in the Senate’s Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee next week.

The Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, which is spearheading the effort to compile the wireless directory, said it takes concerns about privacy seriously and sees the legislation as unnecessary.

The mobile numbers will not be sold or made available in a database or printed book, but will be available only by dialing 411 and requesting a number by the subscriber’s name – making it difficult and expensive for marketers to acquire large lists.

And subscribers will have the choice to opt in or out of the directory at no charge, unlike with landlines where they have to pay a fee to be unlisted.

“The carriers are extremely sensitive to the privacy issues for their consumers,” said Kimberly Kuo, a spokeswoman for the CTIA.

She notes there are other legal protections in place, such as a federal law banning the use of automatic dialing machines to call mobile phones.

The service is aimed particularly at “field-force workers” – people like electricians, plumbers and real-estate agents who are frequently on the road and don’t want to miss customer calls.

Mobile phone contracts already have clauses, buried in the fine print, which give the companies the right to publish telephone numbers. Only Verizon Wireless does not include the clause in its service contracts and does not plan to participate in the 411 mobile directory. The association notes that mobile providers have an incentive to respect their customers’ privacy because those that are unhappy could simply switch to Verizon.

“It’s just good business for the carriers,” Kuo said. “It doesn’t serve the carriers’ business well to have consumers unhappy with their devices or not being served well. It’s so competitive that consumers can go elsewhere.”
Contact the author Harrison Sheppard at (916)446-6723 or [email protected]

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