Tech on the ballot

I’ve never been a fan of ballot initiatives. They seem like a way for legislatures to avoid doing their job. Too often initiatives are poorly worded, often making you think a yes is a no or no is a yes. But they’re with us for good and the recent election was no exception. There were three important ones relating to the the big tech giants, as governments try to control some of their behavior.

Privacy Law

In California, voters approved a measure to strengthen its existing consumer privacy law, designed to protect what the tech industry can do with users’ data and to establish a new state agency to enforce the law. The referendum passed with about 60% voting yes and 40% voting no.

“With tonight’s historic passage of Prop 24, the California Privacy Rights Act, we are at the beginning of a journey that will profoundly shape the fabric of our society by redefining who is in control of our most personal information and putting consumers back in charge of their own data,” said Alastair Mactaggart, Prop 24 sponsor and chair of Californians for Consumer Privacy.

The measure strengthens the 2018 California Consumer Privacy Act, which is already one of the toughest privacy laws in the country. The 2018 law gave Californians more control over the ways their personal data was collected, accessed, and sold by the tech companies. Under that law, Californians had the right to know what information companies held about them.

But it has had numerous loopholes that were closed with this referendum to prevent businesses from escaping liability. Proposition 24 adds new protections to personal data relating to race, health, religion, precise location, and biometric data, and it creates an enforcement agency with a $10M budget.

The new law brings California in line with the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation. With California passing this law, it’s likely the tech industry will follow it as a standard for the country. It’s especially directed at companies such as Facebook, Google and the many marketing and data harvesting entities that rent our personal information for advertising and other uses.

Supporters, such as former presidential candidate, Andrew Yang, said  “After this becomes the law in California, I believe other states are going to look up and say ‘why do Californians have all these data and privacy rights that we don’t have?’” Yang, the chair of the proposition’s advisory board, said. “So as usual, California could end up leading the way.”

Right to Repair Law

This is a law effecting both our own ability as well as an independent company’s ability to repair our products. Many companies, ranging from Apple to John Deere, have designed their products to prevent owners and 3rd party repair companies from fixing them. They erect obstacles in a variety of ways, such as not providing documentation, using software or firmware to disable the product when a repair is attempted, not selling replacement parts or special tools needed, or requiring verification from the cloud for the product to work. It’s become pervasive in many industries, old and new, from high end mechanical watch brands to automobiles.

But Massachusetts voters said no more, at least in regard to the automotive industry, where cars are becoming more reliant on electronics and software. Voters approved a measure requiring car manufacturers to let people access their vehicle data for repairs. Auto manufacturers will have until car model year 2022 to install a standard open data platform that will allow vehicle owners and independent shops to access the car’s telematics, wirelessly transmitted data that is typically sent directly to a remote server.

“Tuesday’s victory shows that people overwhelmingly support fair repair, and they want people they trust to fix the things they own.” said Kevin Purdy of the website iFixit, an terrific site that disassembles and analyzes high tech products, rates them for repairability, and sells tools and parts to make repairs.

Industry has pushed back for years, claiming 3rd party repair companies create a danger to the consumer. But in reality, the main reason is that repair has become a big source of revenue, and they don’t want any competition. With added competition the cost of repairs have shown to drop significantly.

Independent Contractor Referendum

California voters also passed Proposition 22, a measure that allows gig economy companies such as Uber, Lyft, and food delivery companies, to continue to classify their workers as independent contractors, rather than employees.

Opponents of the referendum argued that these workers were entitled to be employees with the benefits that employees are normally entitled to under state law. As contractors, they argued, workers are living on unsustainable wages with draconian rules and subject to the whims of their employees. Studies have shown that the average hourly rate for many of these workers falls far below the minimum wage.

The industry spent $200 million in pushing the referendum, including lobbying their customers by adding ads to the apps. The measure won 58% to 42% on the argument that retaining their independent status, workers could choose their own hours and have much more flexibility.  Uber even threatened to leave California if the referendum was not passed. The new law will now exempt gig economy companies from a state law requiring them to classify their workers as employees, but it also mandates that gig workers receive some modest new benefits, such as minimum hourly earnings.

by Phil Baker