The New York Times Magazine published a long-form article recently titled “The Unlikely Activists Who Took On Silicon Valley — and Won” discussing a group of privacy activists that successfully passed a California bill protecting user privacy from tech giants.
The article published in the New York Times Magazine opens by discussing a man named Alastair Mactaggart, a bay area real estate mogul who had made much of his money thanks to the exorbitant rent prices in areas surrounding Silicon Valley tech companies. If anyone should have been happy about the presence and actions of tech firms it should have been Mactaggart, but instead, the real estate businessman became increasingly worried about the information that these tech companies were collecting on users.
The article states:
The way Alastair Mactaggart usually tells the story of his awakening — the way he told it even before he became the most improbable, and perhaps the most important, privacy activist in America — begins with wine and pizza in the hills above Oakland, Calif. It was a few years ago, on a night Mactaggart and his wife had invited some friends over for dinner. One was a software engineer at Google, whose search and video sites are visited by over a billion people a month. As evening settled in, Mactaggart asked his friend, half-seriously, if he should be worried about everything Google knew about him. “I expected one of those answers you get from airline pilots about plane crashes,” Mactaggart recalled recently. “You know — ‘Oh, there’s nothing to worry about.’ ” Instead, his friend told him there was plenty to worry about. If people really knew what we had on them, the Google engineer said, they would flip out.
Following MacTaggart’s sudden awakening to the dangers of big tech, he began to investigate what sort of rules and privacy laws were in place to protect consumers, discovering that the United States has no single comprehensive law regulating the collection and use of consumers personal data.
Over evening walks around his neighborhood, Mactaggart batted around ideas for a new state law with his friend Rick Arney, a finance executive. But Arney, who worked in the California Legislature after business school, suggested a different approach. Instead of going through Sacramento, Arney suggested, they could put the question directly to the people of California, gathering signatures for a statewide ballot initiative. Mactaggart liked the idea. He also had the money to do something with it. Early last year, he hired a small staff, set them up in a two-room office in Oakland and began cold-calling privacy experts to figure out just what his initiative should say.
“I thought it was a joke at first, to be contacted by someone named ‘Alastair Mactaggart,’ ” says Chris Jay Hoofnagle, who teaches law at the University of California, Berkeley. Mactaggart was wary of proposing a sweeping law like the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, or G.D.P.R., fearing that Californians would find it mystifying and reject it. He wanted a solution that consumers would embrace and Silicon Valley could live with. “I don’t want to kill businesses — I’m a businessman,” Hoofnagle recalls Mactaggart’s telling him. “I just think the data use by these companies is out of control.”
Mactaggart was eventually successful in his efforts and a ballot initiative went ahead. The bill inspired by Mctaggart, the AB 375 privacy bill, was voted on by California lawmakers with almost unanimous agreement to pass. The bill will not come into effect until 2020 but this win was a huge step forward for consumer privacy.
Political power is a malleable thing, Mactaggart had learned, an elaborate calculation of artifice and argument, votes and money. People and institutions — in politics, in Silicon Valley — can seem all-powerful right up to the moment they are not. And sometimes, Mactaggart discovered, a thing that can’t possibly happen suddenly becomes a thing that cannot be stopped.
I spoke to Mactaggart shortly after the vote. “It felt like a moment — people didn’t want to be on the wrong side of this issue,” he observed. A part of Mactaggart was already thinking ahead. The legislation would not take effect until 2020, and both the Legislature and the tech industry would have a chance to amend the new law beforehand. In the weeks after the vote, as Silicon Valley’s accumulated troubles sent shares in Facebook and other tech companies plummeting anew, their lobbyists were back on the march. The Trump administration was convening meetings to discuss a new national privacy standard, one that would perhaps override California’s newly minted statute. There would be plenty of chances for mischief. But as he basked in the victory, Mactaggart was giddy, even emotional. “Everyone who could have blocked it didn’t,” he said. “When the system wants to work, it can.”