How did California’s new law come about?

Photo of privacy advocate Alastair Mactaggart speaking in the Capitol
Privacy advocate Alastair Mactaggart speaks in the state Capitol. Photo by Laurel Rosenhall/CALmatters

It all started with some dinner party chitchat between a San Francisco real estate developer and a Google engineer. The engineer told the developer that Americans would freak out if they knew how much information Google has on them. The developer then spent $3.2 million to put an initiative on the California ballot that would give people more control of their digital data.

Tech companies put up $1 million to fight the ballot measure before deciding they’d rather not wage a public campaign against consumer privacy. The developer, Alastair Mactaggart, agreed to take his measure off the ballot if the Legislature would pass a privacy law. 

Lawmakers had caved to pressure from tech companies in 2017 and let a privacy bill stall. But Mactaggart’s initiative forced them to act, and the two sides worked out a compromise that lawmakers passed in 2018. Mactaggart won a nation-leading privacy law. Tech companies won limits on the ability for people to sue over privacy violations. And both sides won the ability to keep lobbying for changes for a year before the law took effect.

Throughout 2019, tech companies lobbied to weaken the bill while privacy advocates lobbied to toughen it by, among other provisions, giving consumers more ability to sue. (Privacy advocates were divided on that detail; Mactaggart did not advocate for more power to sue, but many other groups did.) When lawmakers gaveled down for the year, however, neither side had won any significant changes to the privacy law.