Advocates Urge Gov. Scott to Sign Data Privacy Bill | Education | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Advocates Urge Gov. Scott to Sign Data Privacy Bill


Published June 3, 2024 at 6:14 p.m.

Marjorie Connolly of the Tech Oversight Project speaking in Burlington - ALISON NOVAK ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Alison Novak ©️ Seven Days
  • Marjorie Connolly of the Tech Oversight Project speaking in Burlington
A small group of advocates gathered outside Burlington City Hall on Monday to urge Gov. Phil Scott to sign a bill aimed at protecting Vermonters' data privacy and enhancing internet safety for children.

H.121, which the legislature approved last month, puts wide-ranging restrictions on companies when it comes to collecting and selling personal data.

The measure limits the information that businesses can collect on consumers to only what is necessary to deliver the good or service a consumer has requested. It prohibits companies from selling sensitive data, such as social security numbers, or financial or medical information. It allows consumers to opt out of targeted advertising. And it includes a stipulation called a "private right of action" that allows consumers to sue large organizations — defined as those that process the data of more than 100,000 Vermont residents — for violating their data privacy rights.

The bill also includes a component known as the Kids Code that would require online products likely to be accessed by children to be age-appropriate, to institute additional privacy measures and to be designed to promote kids’ best interests. That includes eliminating features that encourage young people to stay on apps and social media for long periods of time, such as autoplay and infinite scroll.

The Vermont legislation is similar to a comprehensive online data privacy bill signed by Maryland's governor last month.

Scott has yet to receive the bill from the legislature, according to a spokesperson, Amanda Wheeler. Once he does, he will have five days to sign it, allow it to become law without his signature or veto it.

Wheeler said Scott and his team "will do their due diligence to review the final bill language" and "weigh the good against the bad to make a decision based on whether the benefits outweigh the negative impacts for our entire state."
National tech industry groups such as NetChoice and TechNet opposed the legislation, as do local companies including Orvis and the Vermont Country Store, both based in Manchester. They say it would put Vermont companies at a disadvantage.

At the gathering in Burlington on Monday, Zach Tomanelli, a consumer protection advocate for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, said his organization was proud to support the legislation.

"Right now, Vermonters' web searches, online purchases [and] location check-ins are being harvested and bought and sold completely legally," Tomanelli said. "That unchecked spread of our information exposes consumers to all sorts of threats, like scams, identity theft, harassment and discrimination. H.121 begins to change that."

Jason Van Driesche, chief of staff for Vermont-based social network Front Porch Forum, also spoke in favor of the bill.  "This legislation resonates deeply with Front Porch Forum's mission to help neighbors connect and build community," Van Driesche said. "It stands in stark contrast with Big Tech's reckless and harmful prioritization of profits over privacy, safety and genuine community building."

Van Driesche said the bill "would mark a critical shift towards what's known as 'data respect,' meaning using peoples' — and especially kids' — information in ways that are consistent with their well-being and aligned with why they signed up for the service in the first place."

Laura Derrendinger, a nurse from Middletown Springs, showed up to the event with her school-age children in tow. They held up yellow signs that said "Keep Kids Safe Online." Derrendinger also advocated this year for a bill that would have banned cellphones in schools — legislation that ultimately fizzled.

Derrendinger said she saw H.121 as one of many measures needed to address the mental health issues related to kids' use of phones and social media.

In a public health crisis, you need to employ different strategies to protect people, Derrendinger said: "This legislation is one tool of many tools that will help keep our children safe from online harms."

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