NYC Could Ban Wireless Providers From Sharing Location Data In the City

The legislation was introduced to the council today

Illustration of man using location app on a smartphone
New York City is considering banning wireless providers from selling user location data.
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While Congress and various states grapple with how to regulate data privacy, the New York City Council could soon take part of the matter into its own hands.

New legislation introduced to the council today would ban wireless providers from sharing user location data with third parties if it was collected in any of the city’s five boroughs. The bill’s sponsor, Councilman Justin Brannan, said he hopes it will set the standard for other municipalities while also helping residents realize how their data is being collected and used by their cellphone carriers.

In an interview with Adweek, Brannan said data-sharing “has become a big brother, big business that we feel the need to crack down on.”

“I’m confident there is support there to get this done so that the city can lead the charge,” he said. “We’re in a time now where municipalities in cities and states are really trying to flex their muscles as much as they can because there’s a concern that the federal government is not prioritizing the things they want to prioritize.”

According to a draft of the bill, if approved it would ban cellphone providers and mobile applications from sharing location data with another person or company if the location is within any part of New York City. Any person or company that violates the law would face a fine of $1,000 per violation with a maximum $10,000 penalty per day, per person.

Asked about how the fine was determined, Brannan said he wanted to make it “strong enough legally but prohibitive enough that it sends a really clear message.”

If passed, the legislation would be effective 120 days after becoming law and would be enforced by the city’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications. The bill also would create a private right of action against telecoms and mobile application developers so that individuals could sue if their data has been violated. The law would have some exceptions for sharing location data, such as if a telecom had to provide it to law enforcement or emergency responders or if a person opts into sharing their data for a specific purpose.

It’s unclear how this would play out in practice or how that consent could be collected by each app or wireless provider. The bill also doesn’t specifically mention anything about advertising or marketing.

It’s also still unclear whether the bill will be approved by the New York City Council, but Council Speaker Corey Johnson told The New York Times that he was open to addressing data privacy issues.

“To get the conversation started and to lay down the gauntlet,” Brannan said, “we felt like this should be made illegal because we don’t trust these telecoms are going to stop selling out data.”

The bill comes at a time of decreased trust among consumers relating to telecoms and social media giants like Facebook and Google. Just last week, the Electronic Frontier Foundation sued AT&T with a class-action lawsuit for selling location data to third parties that then was accessed by bounty hunters. Earlier this year, AT&T and T-Mobile said they would stop selling user location data—but only after the FCC opened a federal investigation into the practices of both companies along with Sprint and Verizon.

“A lot of these companies have said, ‘Mom I’ll never do it again,’” Brannan said. “But we’re taking it a step further by codifying it.”

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