Are Republican legislators trying to sabotage Minnesota's internet privacy?

Though privacy protections unanimously passed the Minnesota House, Rep. Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington) stripped them out during a closed-door session.

Though privacy protections unanimously passed the Minnesota House, Rep. Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington) stripped them out during a closed-door session. Glen Stubbe

In March, the U.S. Congress voted to revoke federal internet privacy protections that would have prohibited internet providers from collecting and selling everybody’s browsing data to advertisers.

Minnesota reacted quickly, with both chambers of the legislature voting to ban those practices here.
The House voted unanimously, and the Senate voted 66-1, with Sen. David Osmek (R-Mound) as the lone standout.

But that provision was rolled into the full Jobs and Energy bill, where it wouldn’t last long. On Monday, Sen. Osmek and Rep. Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington) stripped it in a closed-door conference committee.

Sen. Ron Latz (DFL-St. Louis Park), who championed the internet privacy bill, was incensed. He’d heard that the issue had something to do with a disagreement over wording, so they decided to take it out altogether. In his view, the bill was worded perfectly simply – internet service providers are not allowed to gather user data without permission.

“It’s not rocket science,” Latz says. “Everywhere that I go, when the question comes up of what we’re doing at the Capitol, everyone says to me, ‘Thank you for protecting my internet privacy.’ This really touched a nerve with the public. I think the legislature should respect that.”

Garofalo explained that he had no qualms with Latz’s bill. But he did have a problem with an entirely separate provision in the Jobs and Energy bill.

This second provision would have banned the nonconsensual recording of users by devices that have internal microphones, like smart phones and tablets. The issue with that, Garofalo says, is that programs like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa are always listening for users to activate them with a voice command.

“You go out and you buy an Alexa, you plug it in, you start using it, the microphone is always on and running,” Garofalo explains. “You say, ‘Hey Alexa, order me a roll of toilet paper.’ That’s a microphone that’s listening. In the way that Alexa works right now, it would be in violation of this law.”

Garofalo says he decided to take out both provisions – the one dealing with devices with microphones as well as the one dealing with internet service providers – because they’re both related to digital privacy. He says he intends to merge them together in a rewrite, which he promises to include in a final version of the Jobs and Energy bill.

The explanation didn’t sit well with Latz, who held a press conference Tuesday afternoon to address the disappearing internet privacy bill. The senator pointed out that the two provisions clearly address different things, and that Garofalo didn’t have to remove one provision with overwhelming bipartisan support in the chambers in order to rewrite a separate provision.

Now, we can only wait and hope that a rewrite will come before the end of the constitutional deadline.