Wednesday, February 20, 2013

2013 Legislative Session - Week Three Update

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Last week was as busy as ever at the Utah State Legislature, as we continued to work with law makers on several issues.

In the Senate, House Bill 34, Special Group License Plate Amendments, sponsored by Rep. Val L. Peterson that would create a special group license plate reading "In God We Trust", was amended to remove a $25 annual fee that would have been distributed to groups that celebrate "god family and country". As we previously reported, there were concerns over this aspect of the legislation because it would have been in conflict with the establishment clause. Fortunately, the amended version of the bill proved to be a very viable solution to the problem.

In the House, H.B. 43, Campaign Finance Reporting by Corporations, sponsored by Rep. Gregory H. Hughes, requires organizations to disclose their donors when participating in political activities was removed from the agenda, but was rescheduled for a hearing during week four.  Stay tuned for our blog post next week to find out what happened. We have been following H.B. 43 very closely, as it raises issues concerning privacy, and political participation. While the bill is aimed at improving transparency in elections, there is a broad consensus that it will do just the opposite. By requiring organizations to disclose their donors, the bill incentives the use of shell corporations to conceal who is behind a political campaign. Although shell corporations are already used today, H.B. 43 would make them a necessity for any group that wants to participate in the political process and protect its members. To gain a better understanding of why this issue is so important, we can look to what happened in California, where donors' names were revealed after the Prop 8 campaign. In that case, California law required organizations that participated to reveal their donors' information, just as H.B. 43 would in Utah, and the consequences were alarming. With donors' personal information made public, many received threats, suspicious packages in the mail, and endured other forms of intimidation. To this day, will provide the address of every Californian who donated to a group supporting Prop 8, should somebody want to engage in harassment or political intimidation. Based on this precedent, there are two likely consequences of H.B. 43 becoming law. First, large organizations with access to resources and a good legal team will participate in elections via shell organizations. This will hinder transparency by making it harder for citizens to know who is responsible for ads and initiatives sponsored by ambiguously named shell organizations, instead of the more well known groups that are actually behind their efforts. Second, smaller organizations without the resources and knowhow to play the "shell game" will have to choose between abstaining from the democratic process, or potentially exposing their members to harassment and betraying their privacy. The balance between privacy and transparency is always a delicate one in a democracy, and H.B. 43 appears to be bad for both.

Also in the house, a bill concerning what employers can and can not access when it comes to electronic devices and accounts is being considered. H.B. 100, Internet Privacy Amendments, sponsored by Stewart Barlow, starts out on a good note, laying out a laundry list of things employers can not access from their employees. Unfortunately, the second half of the bill is riddled with loopholes and broad language that could mean the bill would cause more harm than good. Fortunately, the bill is still in the early phases of the legislative process, and we are actively working with various law makers to seize this opportunity to protect employees privacy in the workplace. Some of the issues at stake include whether or not an employer can require an employee to provide user names and passwords to social media accounts such as Facebook, and whether or not an employer should have the right to search an employee's device just because it connected to the employer's network. We are working very hard on this issue, because we view it as critical to privacy rights in our rapidly changing world. Look for more updates on H.B. 100 over the coming weeks, as we go through this process.

Finally, In the Senate Todd Weiler has introduced Senate Bill 196, License Plate Reader Amendments, to regulate the use of automatic license plate readers (ALPR). Currently the use of ALPR systems by law enforcement, and even private companies is essentially unregulated in Utah. The bill would put a limit on how long data can be retained, and define under what circumstances it can be accessed. Of equal importance is a provision that would prohibit the use of ALPR systems by private companies. As with so many rapidly emerging technologies, ALPR systems have the potential to lead to grievous violations of privacy rights, and the regulation of their use is critical. We are hopeful that Sen. Weiler's bill will pass as a common sense measure to protect Utahns from such invasions of privacy.

As always, check back every week for more updates on these and a host of other issues we are working on as the legislative session progresses.

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