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Is the new California privacy law a domestic GDPR?

The difference between data privacy protections afforded to European Union residents and people in the U.S. is more sharply highlighted now that the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation has taken effect. Will passage of a new California privacy law make a difference?

At first glance, it may seem California state legislators took a bold first step when they quickly passed a comprehensive data privacy protection law last month known as the California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018.

Like the GDPR, this new legislation spells out these rights for protection of the privacy of California consumers. From the text of the new law, these rights include:

(1) The right of Californians to know what personal information is being collected about them.

(2) The right of Californians to know whether their personal information is sold or disclosed and to whom.

(3) The right of Californians to say no to the sale of personal information.

(4) The right of Californians to access their personal information.

(5) The right of Californians to equal service and price, even if they exercise their privacy rights.

While the intent of the new California privacy law and the GDPR are the same — protecting consumer privacy — the most important differences between the two laws lie in the process. Whereas the GDPR was the product of years of careful preparation and collaboration between bureaucrats, privacy experts, politicians and technology practitioners, the California privacy law was mashed together in less than a week, according to the Washington Post, in order to forestall more stringent privacy protections from being passed via a ballot initiative that had broad support in California.

The bipartisan rush to enact the new California privacy law (passed unanimously) has everything to do with control, and little to do with the will of the people. Legislation passed by the electorate through a ballot initiative is much more difficult for legislators to tinker with: any changes require a two-thirds majority, while laws passed the usual way by the legislature can be more easily modified with a simple majority.

Another superficial similarity between the GDPR and the California Consumer Privacy Act is that enforcement of the new law is set to begin (almost) two years from the date of passage. For the GDPR, enforcement began May 25, 2018; the California privacy law goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2020. Companies facing the requirement to comply with the GDPR were given a two-year window by the EU lawmakers to get ready, but the conventional wisdom around the California privacy law is that the next year and a half will be used by big tech companies and legislators to negotiate the precise terms of the law.

There are many other differences, but companies aiming to comply with the California privacy law should note that the terms of the law as currently written could be softened considerably before enforcement begins.

And some of the differences are worth noting. First, most businesses are likely to not be affected at all, as businesses subject to the law must meet one or more of the following conditions:

  • Annual gross revenues in excess of $25 million,
  • process information of 50,000 or more consumers, households or devices,
  • derive at least 50% of their annual revenues from the sale of personal information

As for penalties, companies subject to the regulation face fines as high as $7,500 for each violation, to be levied through a civil action “brought in the name of the people of the State of California by the Attorney General,” the law reads — but that requires the finding that the offending entity violated the law “intentionally.”

Is the California privacy law comparable to the GDPR? We don’t know, and we probably won’t know for at least a year — and perhaps not until after Jan. 1, 2020, when the new law goes into effect. If the law, as written, is applied to a company like Equifax, which exposed roughly half the adult U.S. population in the breach uncovered last year, then the results could be devastating. The share of Californians exposed in that breach can be estimated at about 12 million; if the Equifax breach was found to have been caused intentionally, the maximum fine would be close to $100 billion.

That’s far higher than the GDPR maximum penalty of 4% of annual global turnover, which in 2017 was only $3.36 billion, meaning the maximum fine could be about $135 million.

However, GDPR penalties don’t require a finding of intent to break the law on the part of the offending entity, and many smaller companies subject to GDPR — those with annual gross revenues lower than $25 million, processing personal data of fewer than 50,000 consumers, households or devices, and which make less than 50% of their revenue from the sale of that data — would be immune from any penalties under the new California privacy law.

The bottom line: unlike in 2016, when the final form of the GDPR was approved and companies were granted a two-year period to prepare to comply with the new privacy regulation, the new California privacy law is coming — but it’s still an open question just how effective or useful it will be for protecting consumer privacy.

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