San Francisco's Proposition B poses an unnecessary threat to government transparency

Hannah Bassett | November 5, 2018
On Nov. 6, San Francisco voters will consider Proposition B, a charter amendment known as the Privacy First Policy. The proposition aims to create consumer privacy protections, but the measure gives ill-defined discretion to elected officials to limit government transparency. The Reporters Committee became aware of the Privacy First Policy after several local media associations, including the Society of Professional Journalists Northern California chapter, raised concerns about the proposition's impact.  
 
San Francisco does not currently have comprehensive privacy policies that protect personal information or allow consumers to control how their information is kept and used. As a result, many companies and government agencies are collecting personal information amid limited regulation. For example, scooter rental agreements are targeting users' private financial information and public transportation agencies are considering the use of biometric surveillance technology for passenger surveillance. Parties endorsing the Privacy First Policy see the proposition as an opportunity to create consumer protections and establish San Francisco — the birthplace of many new and emerging technologies — as a leader in privacy regulation.
 
If approved by voters, the Privacy First Policy would update the Charter of the City and County of San Francisco to include Section 16.130, which would provide guidelines to city agencies and officials when considering future privacy-protective policies or agreements within San Francisco's regulatory authority. These guidelines aim to ensure that when private companies or government agencies store and use consumer information, such practices are transparent, accessible, unbiased, consensual, secure and limited to accomplish a lawful purpose. 
 
San Francisco's city administrator would draft and present an ordinance to the Board of Supervisors — by no later than next May — that establishes criteria for the city to use for all future privacy-related policies and agreements. The city administrator would evaluate the measure’s implementation every three years and recommend changes to improve privacy. 
 
As written, the Privacy First Policy would greatly expand elected officials' discretion to change San Francisco's landmark transparency law and other voter-approved ordinances. 
 
Section (i) of the measure reads, in part: 
 
…the Board of Supervisors is authorized by ordinance to amend voter-approved ordinances regarding privacy, open meetings, or public records, provided that any such amendment is not inconsistent with the purpose or intent of the voter-approved ordinance.
 
This section would enable the Board of Supervisors to revise voter-approved ordinances at its own discretion, but it does not include clear limits on that discretion or criteria for the city attorney to follow when interpreting changes put forward. This raises concerns, as the city attorney would face a conflict of interest: the city attorney represents the interests of elected officials whom voter-approved ordinances, including the Sunshine Ordinance, aim to hold accountable. 
 
Without well-defined criteria for evaluating the Board of Supervisors' changes to voter-approved ordinances, the Privacy First Policy leaves the Sunshine Ordinance vulnerable, should current or future elected officials decide that government transparency policies are not in their best interest. Giving the public more control over how our consumer information is used is laudable, but there is no need to do so at the cost of government transparency.