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Florida House overwhelmingly approves consumer privacy bill

Senate committee expected to address bill as soon as Thursday.
Gov. Ron DeSantis delivers his State of the State address in the House chamber at the Capitol in Tallahassee during Opening Day of the Florida Legislature on Tuesday, March 2, 2021.
Gov. Ron DeSantis delivers his State of the State address in the House chamber at the Capitol in Tallahassee during Opening Day of the Florida Legislature on Tuesday, March 2, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Apr. 22
Updated Apr. 22

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida House resoundingly approved a consumer privacy bill on Wednesday, giving the public an opportunity to regain ownership of the personal data collected by companies and the right to sue companies for mishandling information in a marketplace where consumers themselves have become lucrative commodities.

The state Senate is expected to soon take up the House bill, as part of a package of proposals sought by Gov. Ron DeSantis meant to reign in Big Tech firms. The Republican governor is also seeking to redress concerns, particularly among conservatives, about how social media companies handle unpopular views.

Florida, the country’s third most populous state, would be the latest to enact consumer protections against Big Data’s ability to harvest personal information about how people conduct their day-to-day lives, including where they shop and eat, what they read and what they share online.

The resulting dossier is often bought and sold in a lucrative marketplace that has become an important element of modern commerce.

“It’s clear we all agree that we need to do something about data privacy,” said Rep. Fiona McFarland, the Republican who was tapped to carry the bill in the House, adding that “the tech world has perhaps gone just a little bit too far without us knowing what’s going on.”

Business interests have lobbied heavily against the proposal. McFarland noted that more than 300 lobbyists had registered to speak on the bill as it wound through legislative committees.

Despite intense lobbying from business interests, the House version retains a provision that would allow individual consumers to sue companies that do not comply with the law, including selling information when a consumer has asked that a company does not do so.

The personal cause of action had been removed from the Senate version, and could be a sticking point as the full Senate decides whether to take up the House version, not its own, when it considers the matter.

Some estimates put the cost of compliance at billions of dollars, and it is unclear how quickly businesses can put in place the necessary infrastructure and protocols to comply.

“We should be doing the important work to protect consumer privacy. Other states have started this work, and we should be a part of that,” said Rep. Ben Diamond, who supported the bill but nevertheless expressed reservations shared from the business community about the logistical and financial cost to comply.

Scores of so-called “techlash” bills have sprung up in statehouses across the country, propelled by concerns that Big Tech companies have become too powerful and that the federal government has not moved quickly enough to protect consumers from the intrusions of Big Data.

The Florida bill would require companies to reveal what data they are gathering, force them to delete it upon consumer request and make them liable for selling it when told not to.

“It creates one of the single largest regulatory burdens on Florida businesses,” said Rep. Anthony Sabatini, a Republican who was the lone House member to vote against the measure. “I support data privacy but this big government bill takes a terrible approach.”

Support for the bill was a rare show of bipartisanship on a high-profile initiative pushed by Gov. DeSantis as he prepares to launch his bid for reelection.

DeSantis is also urging lawmakers to pass a measure aimed at social media companies who critics claim stifle conservative voices on their platforms. The proposals before Florida lawmakers would authorize hefty fines against social media companies that remove the accounts of those seeking public office.

The bill was filed days after Twitter suspended the account of then-President Donald Trump after his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. It would also punish the companies for “deplatforming” political candidates, including fines of up to $100,000 daily when a statewide office seeker is suspended from a social media site. Twitter booted Trump following the insurrection, after concluding that a “close review” of his tweets could lead to a “further incitement of violence.”

The full Senate is expected to give the measure an initial hearing during its floor session on Thursday.

By Bobby Caina Calvan

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Tampa Bay Times Florida Legislature coverage

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