Proposed bill would give users a digital eraser button

February 18, 2014

By Contributor

OLYMPIA — The proliferation of social networking sites and online media has created a flood of personal information in the marketplace. A proposed House Bill would give users a right to have that information erased from the public eye.

While Washington state recognizes certain protections against the invasion of privacy, there is generally no liability for public disclosure of a fact that has already lost its private nature by being posted publicly.

“Back in the ‘70s, (you’d) put a lampshade on your head at some party and the embarrassment of that the next morning was from the people at the party,” said Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon, prime sponsor of House Bill 2180. “Now, you do that online, it can go viral and it can be a lifetime of humiliation.”

In September 2013, California enacted the Eraser Button Law, which requires websites and applications to provide an eraser button to its users under the age of 18.

“We basically took the bill that they had and extended it because theirs only covered teenagers,” Morris said.

House Bill 2180 would require companies to provide an avenue within their websites or applications for users to remove, hide or make their information anonymous.

“Facebook will tell you, ‘We already do this,’” Morris said. “If it’s Yelp or somebody else that doesn’t like it, they’ll probably say it’s going to end capitalism as we know it.”

Technology advocates at a public hearing last month argued the bill was unnecessarily complicated and cumbersome to companies.

“It puts a burden on technology companies on something that’s already being done by most companies,” said Patti Brooke, of the Washington Technology Industry Association. “I think right now the market is already dictating that companies enable people to delete content.”

Newspapers, magazines and other websites that enable comments would have to provide Washington users a way to delete them.

“We’re not sure how we’re going to implement this,” Rowland Thompson, of Allied Daily Newspapers, said. “There are news stories that are commented on constantly, and we don’t know how we’ll deal with this going forward.”

While technology industry advocates are worried about the time and resources required by the proposal, Morris said he doesn’t think “it’s unfeasible from a technology point of view.”

Technology companies that would be violating the proposed bill would likely be fined and charged with a gross misdemeanor. Repeat offenders or more egregious cases would be pursued by the state Attorney General’s Office under the Consumer Protection Act.

“When you don’t have policies and rules that protect privacy upfront, what happens is people start to build them in on the back end and you end with all sorts of security holes and so forth,” Morris said. “Technology is inherently not good or evil. It’s how it’s deployed.”

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