California State Lawmaker Has Possible Conflict of Interest Related to Privacy Act

October 1, 2019 Updated: October 1, 2019

California Assemblywoman Jacqui Irwin, who co-chairs a national cybersecurity task force and serves on the state’s Privacy & Consumer Protection Committee, is pushing for revisions to aspects of the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA).

One of Irwin’s (D-Thousand Oaks) proposed amendments would have removed a requirement that companies divulge and delete data linked to “households” if requested. AB-873 failed to pass a Senate committee in July, but was granted reconsideration.

The attempt to exempt certain kinds of data from new requirements wouldn’t have raised so many eyebrows if Irwin’s husband, Jon Irwin, wasn’t the chief operating officer for the company Ring, which sells video doorbells and other home security products.

The company, based in Santa Monica, California, and purchased by Amazon for nearly $1 billion last year, collects “vast amounts of consumer data [and] has a financial stake in the details of California’s groundbreaking data-privacy law,” according to a Politico report.

“It is quite likely that 873, had it passed, would have limited the application of the CCPA to the information that Ring has,” Chris Conley, a technology and data-privacy attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, told Politico. “AB-873 certainly would have affected Ring.”

The CCPA, signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2018, was designed to give Californians control over certain personal information collected by companies. The law empowers individuals to force companies to delete or refrain from selling personal information at their request.

When Irwin was confronted with the notion that her legislative role might conflict with the financial interests of her husband’s company, she remarked that the suggestion was “a little bit offensive.” She added, “We can talk about this later.”

Irwin didn’t respond immediately to follow-up questions submitted by The Epoch Times.

“My role in the privacy debate in the Legislature is focused on bringing people together and solving the practical issues posed to us as policy makers and is independent of any job or role my husband may have,” Irwin said in a statement issued to Politico. “My education and professional background as a systems engineer provides me distinct qualifications in the Legislature to weigh in on matters related to technology.”

The proposal that Irwin advanced is supported by a number of industry groups, such as the California Chamber of Commerce, the Internet Association, and TechNet, a national, bipartisan network of technology CEOs that named Irwin “Legislator of the Year” in 2017.

The Internet Association—a trade group founded by a number of big tech companies including Google, Amazon, eBay, and Facebook—spent $176,000 lobbying the California legislature last quarter, The Washington Post reported in September.

The lobbyists also initiated an ad campaign targeted at residents of Sacramento. The ads suggested, among other things, that “FREE websites and apps you use every day could start costing you,” according to one Twitter ad.

Ring could be drastically affected by amendments to the CCPA, especially given the company’s recently reported partnerships with more than 400 police departments across the country. These entanglements have raised questions regarding what kind of data is collected and how Ring shares the data with agencies.

This collaboration has prompted lawmakers such as Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) to write a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, stating that Ring’s partnerships “raise serious privacy and civil liberties concerns.”

“Although Amazon markets Ring as America’s ‘new neighborhood watch,’ the technology captures and stores video from millions of households and sweeps up footage of countless bystanders who may be unaware that they are being filmed,” Markey wrote on Sept. 5 (pdf). “I am particularly alarmed to learn that Ring is pursuing facial-recognition technology with the potential to flag certain individuals as suspicious based on their biometric information.”

State conflict-of-interest law effectively forbids legislators from participating in decisions that could impact their own financial interest.

“Generally speaking, the Political Reform Act does require potential recusal for an official who has a direct, personal, material financial impact from taking part in discussions and/or decisions/votes,” said Jay Wierenga, the communications director of California’s Fair Political Practices Commission, an organization tasked with enforcing such laws.

When asked if there were any complaints filed concerning Irwin’s potential conflict of interest, Wierenga told The Epoch Times that as of mid-September, “we had no complaints filed regarding that matter.”

John Casey, a spokesperson for the Assembly Speaker’s office, told Politico that it doesn’t typically take into account statements related to economic interest when making committee appointments. Rather, it is usually up to lawmakers to recuse themselves.

But when it comes to the issue of recusal, the legalities become considerably complex.

“For example, if a state lawmaker is a dairy farmer, and legislation comes before her/his committee regarding dairy regulations, it would obviously affect their farm,” Wierenga told The Epoch Times.

“But it would also affect hundreds—maybe thousands—of other farms. So voting on it, in committee, or on the floor, is not something prohibited because it affects more than just their dairy operation. Now, if the legislation targets just three farms in one section of a county, and that lawmaker’s farm is one of them, that might be a different situation and might easily require someone to have to recuse themselves. But even then, it may depend on the facts of the situation.”

Other commentators view the issue more definitively.

“Look, if your spouse has a financial interest in a company and you are voting on or are proposing legislation that would affect that company, I think there is an enormously good argument to be made that it could be a conflict of interest under the Political Reform Act,” Jessica Levinson, an ethics and campaign finance expert at Loyola Law School, told Politico.

The law, which shares similarities to Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2020.