Backers of California Privacy Ballot Measure Hand-Deliver Letter to Facebook

Mary Ross, president of Californians for Consumer Privacy, holds a letter she attempted to deliver on April 9, 2018, to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg asking her to support a privacy ballot measure. (Marisa Lagos/KQED)

Mary Stone Ross left her Oakland home Monday morning and drove to Menlo Park in search of Facebook's chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg.

After 10 minutes of driving around the tech giant's campus, Ross found a place to park near Building 20. She marched inside, and asked if she could hand-deliver a letter to Sandberg.

About five minutes later, a man at the front desk apologized, saying Sandberg and her staff were in and out of meetings. He told her that for security reasons, they couldn't accept the letter and to use snail mail instead.

Ross had actually already emailed the letter to Facebook's government affairs unit. But as president of a group called Californians for Consumer Privacy, who are working on a ballot measure that Facebook, Google and other well-funded California businesses vehemently oppose, Ross is assuming she's going to need a bit of dramatic flair to get her message out.

Ross is a former counterintelligence official at the CIA and former staffer at the House Intelligence Committee, who said she fell into the privacy fight after a friend, Bay Area real estate developer Alastair Mactaggart, told her about a measure he was aiming to put on the California ballot.

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"I started digging, and the more I started looking into what was happening, it astounded me how much information these corporations are collecting about you and about your children. I have three little kids. And that was something that really concerned me. And then what was even worse is that there is no regulation and no oversight," she said.

"We've seen how powerful this information is. I've seen it both from a government perspective but also from a corporate perspective as well. It's being used to manipulate us. And yet nobody is watching what's going on."

Backers say they have enough signatures for their measure to appear on the November ballot. That's months away, but Ross was seizing on Facebook's apology tour of recent weeks, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg's testimony to Congress this week, to point out the company's opposition to the ballot measure.

The measure would let consumers request information from companies about what categories of personal information they have collected, and who they sold it to. And, it would allow consumers to request that companies not share or sell that information.

It would bar companies from discriminating against consumers who "opt out" of having their information shared and it would let them sue the company if they sold the information anyway.

Facebook is among four companies that have donated $200,000 to the Committee to Protect California Jobs, a campaign committee organized by the California Chamber of Commerce to oppose the measure.

The Internet Association is heading up opposition to the initiative. Robert Callahan, vice president of state government affairs for the Internet Association, said the proposed law would not do what proponents promise and would stifle innovation across industry in California.

"The ballot measure defines things very broadly so that it sort of loses meaning," he said. "It treats every piece of personal information the same, whether it's a random, anonymous person in San Francisco looking for Warriors tickets (or) somebody's Social Security number. And so if you're treating all information the same, then it loses all meaning in terms of how you are required to protect that information."

Callahan added that the proposal would be incredibly onerous and it would open up companies to huge legal liabilities by allowing consumers to sue.

"The amount of paper pushing and bureaucratic requirements that the initiative creates for them, with no real value or benefit for the consumer, is really, really out of balance."

Ross agrees with Callahan on one thing: The measure would affect many large California businesses, not just the tech giants. The opposition's donor list reflects that: In addition to Facebook and Google, Comcast and Verizon have each provided $200,000. Ross notes that many companies buy and sell information -- including Evite and Tivo.

Ross admitted that she didn't actually expect to get an audience with Sandberg Monday.

"Hopefully, she will read my letter and take it to heart," she said after leaving Building 20. "I just would hope that if Facebook is sincere, that they are committed to protecting users' privacy and they're not selling personal information, that they would be open to a candid dialogue."

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