It took Alastair Mactaggart two years and more than $3 million of his own money to get a groundbreaking data privacy law passed in California. Now he expects to spend much of the next two years making sure the legislation survives until it takes effect in 2020.
The law, which passed in late June, gives consumers the power to prevent companies from selling their personal information. Echoing the set of restrictive rules known as GDPR enacted earlier this year by the European Union, the legislation will almost certainly be the subject of intense lobbying from the tech giants that vacuum up all the data.
“There is the risk that tech will now sneakily come in and eviscerate this law,” Mactaggart said. “I want to stay involved to make sure we keep the gains we made.” He is considering putting together a group of engineers and technical experts to help the state attorney general put the law into effect and enforce it. “The AG is going to have to produce some very sophisticated granular rules for how this stuff gets implemented, and [the tech industry] is going to be lobbying the AG six ways to Sunday,” he says.
Mactaggart, 51, is an unlikely advocate for consumer privacy. He spent much of his career developing real estate in the Bay Area and previously had no history of political advocacy. This makes his success all the more surprising. Having collected more than 600,000 signatures for a ballot initiative, Mactaggart offered to pull it at the last minute if lawmakers passed a comparable bill. They did—demonstrating the political power of citizens with ample resources.
Mactaggart found himself searching for a new project after stepping away from full-time development work in 2013. Financially comfortable following a couple of “really good” deals, he began tossing around ideas with Rick Arney, a LendingClub official and fellow resident in Piedmont, Calif., whose son attended the same kindergarten as Mactaggart’s. Many of the world’s problems—climate change, nukes, education reform—seemed too thorny or were already being addressed by experts in those fields.
Tech and data privacy, on the other hand, felt within reach. The issue had been on Mactaggart's mind since a cocktail party—an oft-repeated anecdote in recent months—where a Google engineer told him that if people really knew how much tech companies knew about them, they’d be “freaked out.”
He and Arney began work on a ballot initiative, the California Consumer Privacy Act, and hired a team. Fundraising was difficult. Mactaggart said a cousin gave $49,000 and some donors gave smaller amounts, but he paid for most of it himself. Even those closest to him were skeptical. “I thought this was a pipe dream, taking on Google and Facebook and AT&T and everybody else,” says Oz Erickson, Mactaggart’s longtime business partner and uncle. “I hate to confess this, but I didn’t think it had any chance at all.”
Polling data, on the other hand, showed voters loved the idea and were not swayed by arguments that the law could hurt business, especially after revelations that the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica had hoovered up the data of millions of Facebook users. “Is anybody crying me a river over Facebook’s profits?” Mactaggart asked. “Nobody cares.”
In California, approved ballot initiatives can only be amended by another voter referendum. So legislators and tech companies wanted to pass a more flexible option. As the deadline for putting the initiative on the ballot loomed last week, lawmakers drafted and passed AB 375. “This sounds corny, but I do think legislature is the right place for the law,” Mactaggart said.
Critics have piled on since the legislation passed, arguing that it was rushed and sloppily crafted. Mactaggart said his team spent two years researching the issue and notified California officials in February that they had reached 25% of the needed signatures. “Nothing stopped anyone from talking to us between February and June,” he said. “Maybe they didn’t take me seriously.” Mactaggart acknowledged that the bill requires some surface-level tweaks but said he believes “the basic architecture doesn’t need to be changed.”
He expects other states to pass similar laws, especially while public sentiment about data privacy remains elevated. “The only reason this worked is people are fundamentally outraged about their data being misused,” he said. Mactaggart has no plans to run for public office but said if the new law is weakened between now and 2020, he is open to putting another initiative on the ballot to address it. After all, he has a businessman’s perspective on the value of public opinion.
“I wasn’t happy that 70 million people’s information got shared,” he says of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. “But having Zuckerberg testify in Congress was worth a lot of advertising dollars to us in terms of raising awareness about the issue.”