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August 14, 2018; New York Times

The New York Times’ Nicholas Confessore writes about the “unlikely activist” Alastair Mactaggart, who successfully spearheaded an initiative to protect data privacy in California. While Mactaggart is not, perhaps, a typical organizer, his campaign borrows themes and tactics from many activist movements before him.

What makes an activist “likely”? Mactaggart recounts how he came to play a role in the data privacy landscape. First, he encountered a systemic injustice when a friend told him, “If people really knew what we [Google] had on them, they would flip out.” That didn’t seem right to Mactaggart, and upon further research, he found there was no federal or state regulation governing how companies used data.

If advertisers are tech companies’ “real customers,” as Confessore claims, then the people using sites like Facebook and Google are the product, their data bought and sold without their knowledge or consent. That data functions as a kind of capital: swapped, bought, stored, and moving within a system that’s nearly impenetrable except to those who work within it.

In addition to the economic power that goes with possessing that kind of capital, says Confessore, Facebook and Google had “a private surveillance apparatus of extraordinary reach and sophistication.” They built this without express permission from the public or the government and with virtually no restrictions on how they use it. Yet somehow this major civil rights issue has mostly failed to stir up sustained response.

After his realization, Mactaggart was energized to act. He told Confessore, “It’s like that Buddhist thing, where you walk past a mess and a mop and say, ‘Someone ought to clean up that mess.’ And eventually you realize you have to pick up the mop.” Nonprofits, staffed as they are by longtime holders of mops, will recognize this important moment.

Mactaggart is unlike many activists in terms of his social profile. He’s an extremely wealthy white man, a Harvard graduate and president of a San Francisco real estate development firm. All of these factors (however unjustly) give him social capital and access to government leaders that many people on the ground levels of less wealthy causes might envy.

But his path to activism, in this case, seems fairly by-the-book. Just as ordinary citizens were unaware of Standard Oil’s harmful monopoly practices until Ida Tarbell’s research uncovered them, so many citizens were unaware of the dangers or extent of Facebook’s data collection until the Cambridge Analytica scandal hit. Ashkan Soltani, a highly regarded privacy researcher and consultant, told Confessore that the way tech companies placed the burden of caution on consumers is “like selling you coffee and making it your job to decide if the coffee has lead in it.” Once the lead, so to speak, was revealed, people were upset.

Mactaggart rode that wave of public anger to collect over 600,000 signatures on a ballot initiative that he drafted in consultation with experts. The bill would allow consumers to know what data was being collected and when, and to deny tech companies the right to sell or share their data. By using the ballot initiative, Mactaggart and Soltani figure that “through California’s referendum process, they could end-run the entire tangle of interests that had stymied the Obama bill in Washington.” In other words, if you are working on behalf of the public, they are your best allies in creating change.

Of course, Silicon Valley fought the bill. Confessore writes,

Wealth, prestige and ignorance had made the tech industry virtually unbeatable. They doled out campaign money to Republicans and Democrats alike. They had allies across the major think tanks and universities. Facebook alone belonged to more than four dozen trade associations and industry coalitions, political shields that could advance Facebook’s interests in battles that were too toxic for direct engagement. It supported the Anti-Defamation League and the American Council of the Blind, the American Conservative Union and the NAACP. It disbursed millions of dollars in grants to tech-advocacy groups—including those that sometimes criticized them. Like the web of personal data it mined for profit, Silicon Valley’s political network was simultaneously immense, powerful and inscrutable.

Ultimately, though, threatened with the popular ballot initiative, Silicon Valley executives compromised, and passed a bill that was close enough to Mactaggart’s proposal to earn his support.

The conclusion of this story reminds us of many rights and freedoms, unimaginable at one time and indispensable in ours. Confessore writes, “Mactaggart had learned, people and institutions—in politics, in Silicon Valley—can seem all-powerful right up to the moment they are not. And sometimes, Mactaggart discovered, a thing that can’t possibly happen suddenly becomes a thing that cannot be stopped.”—Erin Rubin