Editorial: Protecting privacy

The state’s new internet privacy law, scheduled to go into effect July 1, offers Mainers a strong measure of protection, but let us not overestimate the security it will provide. When it comes to personal data, the web is an untamed frontier. It will take federal — even international — action to help stem the collection and use of personal data online.

“An Act to Protect the Privacy of Online Customer Information” was sponsored by state Sen. Shenna Bellows, who grew up in Hancock and now lives in Manchester. The legislation, which was unanimously approved by the state Senate, prevents internet service providers who do business in Maine from using, disclosing, selling or permitting access to consumer personal information without consent. Personal information includes customers’ names, billing addresses and information, Social Security numbers, demographic details, the content of communications and web browsing history as well as information about finances, health or the customer’s children.

While hailed as one of the strictest such laws in the nation, some privacy advocates say it doesn’t go far enough. The Maine State Chamber of Commerce on its website advocates for protections that encompass data collected by websites, online services and social media platforms such as Facebook. Internet service providers are just one piece of the digital puzzle.

But Maine lawmakers went as far as they could without running afoul of the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution governing interstate trade, according to state Rep. Nicole Grohoski (D-Ellsworth and Trenton), who serves on the Joint Standing Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology.

Maine will wait and see how laws in other states, including California, fare against legal challenges. Congress may take action in the meantime.

The internet is global so state-level regulations are challenging for governments and businesses. These new laws will force companies to abide by a patchwork of different rules, some of which might be contradictory. Small start-ups might not have the resources to compete in such an environment, only highlighting the need for a national set of rules.

The pace of digital innovation has long outpaced the government’s ability to keep up. The loose regulatory environment helped spur innovation and a powerful new sector of the economy, but it has also been ripe for exploitation. The push for greater consumer privacy protections online draws wide support from the public and from politicians on both sides of the aisle.

The federal government must act to protect citizens’ personal data without creating a labyrinth of regulations so complex that it will hobble the pace of innovation.

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