Marcotte, et al: Big Data vs. Your Privacy, Why Vermont Must Override the Governor's Veto

This commentary is by Chair, Rep. Michael Marcotte, R-Coventry; Vice Chair, Rep. Stephanie Jerome, D-Brandon; and Clerk, Rep. Monique Priestley, D-Bradford of the Vermont House Committee on Commerce & Economic Development. 

Your voice matters more than you might realize — right now, it has the power to impact the lives of not only you and your children, but everyone else in the state. Please reach out to your State Senators and Representatives to urge them to override the Governor's veto of H.121, the Vermont Data Privacy Act and Kids Code. 

Every time you are connected to the Internet, you’re being tracked. What you search for online, your browsing history, what you buy, and your location are being collected by companies on the other side of your screens, smart speakers, and even your car. Your data is big business. Big Data has been active in our own backyard this legislative session, fighting to stop you from getting the privacy and security protections you deserve to the tune of $1 million in lobbying expenditures. 

When Governor Scott vetoed H.121, he mentioned the risks of passing protective measures. What he failed to mention were the risks of doing nothing – letting Big Data companies continue to exploit our information for profit.  

Many data companies operate in the shadows using tracking cookies in websites and secret pieces of code in smartphone apps. Shadowy companies known as data brokers collect, buy, slice and dice, and resell your data. There are over 500 data brokers active in the U.S., secretly collecting and reselling our data – which right now, is completely legal. 

The more companies collect and sell your data, the greater the risk it has of being exposed in a breach or hack, increasing the chances of identity theft or fraud. In 2023, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received one million complaints about identity theft and reports of $2.7 billion lost to imposter scams. The more personal information scammers have, the more convincing these scams become. Military members alone reported losing $178 million to these schemes. Since 2001, the number of complaints to the FTC about fraud, identity theft, and related issues has skyrocketed from 326,000 to 5.4 million last year. The rise of the data economy has fueled these issues to new, urgent heights. 

Think you’re not affected? Consider these recent major breaches: LiveNation/TicketMaster, Advanced Auto Parts, UnitedHealth Insurance, AT&T, Uber, T-Mobile, ParkMobile, Yahoo, and Dropbox. If you’re a customer of any of these companies, you could be at risk. 

Also fueling the fire are Big Tech companies that collect huge amounts of data about our children in order to fuel their targeted advertising business. In 2022 alone, social media platforms Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, X, and YouTube collectively made nearly $11 billion in advertising revenue from American users younger than 18. These platforms design their products to keep our children glued to screens, tracking their activities, and selling their data to boost profits, regardless of the cost to Vermont families. The mental health fallout in our teens is very real, and so far Big Tech has been let off the hook. 

In his veto, Governor Scott suggested that Vermont should give up our place as a potential leader and pass the same privacy law as our neighbors in Connecticut or New Hampshire. These laws do not do enough to protect people. We worked closely with Connecticut’s bill sponsor and other New England legislators to fix loopholes in their laws, which were influenced by Big Data lobbying. This year, the Connecticut Attorney General’s office released a report highlighting these issues and urged the legislature to address them. Standardizing laws to match weaker precedents is a common industry tactic to push states in a race to the bottom. 

We can – and must – do better. Big Data companies have a lot at stake as Vermont and other states move to strengthen consumer protections. Every social media post, search query, and digital footstep – including those of kids and teens – is worth money to these companies and drives their enormous profits. To prevent states from cutting off this firehose of data, firms have mounted a relentless ground game to manipulate and confuse legislators, using “small businesses” as pawns. I sympathize with the Governor and our state trade groups who fell prey to the puppetry of Big Data. These companies are sophisticated operators. 

Governor Scott’s veto isn’t about doing what’s right for Vermonters. It’s about yielding to Big Data’s pressure at your expense. For decades, your personal information has been a commodity bought and sold by companies that don’t have your best interests at heart. It’s time for your elected officials to take action.