EFF’s Work in State Legislatures: Year In Review 2020

Posted by on December 30, 2020 11:59 AM
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EFF works in state legislatures across the country to fight for your civil liberties. This year, the pandemic upended the priorities and plans of every statehouse. But, with your support, EFF was able to quickly respond to surveillance threats, defend privacy, and counter the ways the pandemic made matters worse.  Here are some highlights of our work—both in California and beyond.

Fighting Government Face Surveillance

After 2018 and 2019, which saw cities including San Francisco and Oakland passing municipal bans on government use of face recognition, many state lawmakers took notice of the growing momentum around this dangerous technology.

Unfortunately, not all of their ideas were good.

In California, EFF joined a broad coalition of civil liberties, civil rights, and labor advocates to oppose A.B. 2261, which proposed weak regulation of face surveillance. Modeled after a similar bill enacted in Washington state—a measure EFF and other civil liberties groups opposed—this bill threatened to normalize the increased use of face surveillance of Californians where they live and work.  Our allies included the ACLU of California, Oakland Privacy, the California Employment Lawyers Association, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) of California, and California Teamsters. This wide-ranging group illustrated how many people recognize the threat of face surveillance to their communities.

We continue to work with lawmakers across the country who are pushing for bills that would end government face surveillance at the state and city level. And we encourage communities across the country to join this movement with our About Face campaign. Take this opportunity to advocate for the end of government use of this harmful technology in your own neighborhoods.

Standing Up for Strong Privacy

Consumer data privacy continued to be a major focus for legislators and voters in 2020, both as it related to the pandemic and as a more general issue. The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) went into effect at the start of the year. More changes are coming because California’s voters enacted Proposition 24, which amended the CCPA. EFF did not take a position on that mixed bag of steps forward, steps back, and missed opportunities. Proposition 24 goes into effect in 2023, and CCPA remains the law until then. We will work to ensure pro-privacy implementation of Proposition 24, and continue to fight for strong privacy laws.

There are a lot of weak privacy bills out there. EFF again opposed Washington’s “Privacy Act,” which failed to pass the state’s legislature for the second year in a row. The bill received widespread support from big tech companies. It’s no wonder they like this weak, token effort at reining in corporations’ rampant misuse of personal data. We expect privacy to be at issue again in Washington, where lawmakers are strongly influenced by tech companies in their backyard.

Back in California, EFF stood against A.B. 2004, which would have laid the groundwork for an ill-considered blockchain-based system for “immunity passports.” Specifically, the bill directed the state to set up a verified health credential that shows the results of someone’s last COVID-19 test, for purposes of restricting  access to public places. EFF believes that people should not be forced to present health data on their smartphones to enter public places. By claiming that blockchain technology was part of a unique solution to the public health crisis, A.B. 2004 was opportunism at its worst. We were proud to stand against this bill with allies including Mozilla and the ACLU of California. Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed it.

We also called on Gov. Newsom to add necessary privacy protections to any pandemic response program. The California legislature failed to pass a pair of bills (A.B. 660 and A.B. 1782) that would have instituted important privacy guardrails on contact tracing programs. We will continue to work on this issue in the coming year.

Expanding Broadband Access

EFF was proud to co-sponsor California S.B. 1130, by Sen. Lena Gonzalez, which would have paved the way for state-financed networks with bandwidth to handle Internet traffic for decades to come. Expanding broadband access, particularly fiber, is key. Fiber-to-the-home is the best option for California’s future, as EFF explained in a filing to the California Public Utilities Commission.

S.B. 1130 passed the Senate 30-9 and had the support of Gov. Newsom. Yet, with just hours left in this year’s legislative session, the California Assembly refused to hear SB 1130, or any deal, to expand broadband access—without any explanation to the more than 50 groups that supported this bill.

But we’re not giving up. In fact, we’ve continued to build our coalition demanding greater broadband access. On December 7, the first day of the California legislature’s new session, Sen. Gonzalez filed S.B. 4, which shares the same core principles as S.B. 1130.

If you are a California business, non-profit, local elected official, or anchor institution, please sign on in support of S.B. 4. EFF will include you in a letter to update the legislature of how wide and deep current support is for this legislation. Dozens of organizations and elected officials have endorsed this bill with more to come. Join us!

We’re talking to lawmakers in other states who are also interested in overhauling their Internet infrastructure. The weaknesses of many networks have become crystal clear as more people work from home and attend school entirely online.

Looking Ahead

The pandemic and the many ways it affects digital liberties will continue to be a main focus in many legislatures. EFF will continue to work with state lawmakers across the country to enact laws to expand consumer protections and access to critical technologies, to ensure that civil liberties are part of any pandemic response, and to oppose federal efforts to take away rights in states that have passed strong laws.

This article is part of our Year in Review series. Read other articles about the fight for digital rights in 2020.