Big Tech Tried to Kill My State’s Privacy Bill. Here’s What I Learned.

Monique Priestley / May 31, 2024

Monique Priestley is a Vermont State Representative for the Orange 2 District.

The Vermont Statehouse in Montpelier. Jonathan King, Wikimedia Commons. CC by 3.0

There is a war being fought over your family’s personal data. But it’s not a fight that most people see or are even aware of. That’s because it’s taking place behind closed doors in state houses across the country. As a Vermont state lawmaker and sponsor of one of the strongest data privacy bills in the country, I’ve been on the frontlines of this war and have some insights into what it means to go up against Big Tech and its army of lobbyists.

Giant tech companies including Meta, Google, and Amazon have a lot at stake as Vermont and other states move to strengthen protections for consumer data. 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, Big Tech firms have mounted a relentless ground game to manipulate and confuse legislators.

These companies are sophisticated operators. As trillion-dollar corporations that face intense criticism over their business practices, they know better than to be the public face of this influence campaign. So in Vermont and other states, they flood the zone with industry trade groups that push their talking points and form alliances with other, more established companies and organizations.

These tech groups follow a bare-knuckle playbook. First, they try to kill a strong privacy bill by slowing or halting its progress. If they don’t succeed there, Plan B is to water down the bill by getting lawmakers to remove or weaken its core provisions. The goal there is a hollowed-out piece of “privacy” legislation that looks good in headlines but offers little in the way of actual data protection.

Sometimes it’s hard to see the tech industry’s hand in all this lobbying. In Vermont, a group called the Connected Commerce Council (C3), which is dedicated to “empowering small businesses,” had a lot to say about our privacy bill. That got the attention of lawmakers, who see small business owners as the backbone of the state’s economy and a key constituency. But I later learned that C3 is bankrolled by Big Tech and once inflated its membership with small businesses that said they had never heard of the group.

As out-of-state lobbyists and lawyers descended on Vermont to “educate” us, I heard everything from warnings that our bill would “break the internet” to threats that tech companies would stop doing business in our state if the legislation passed. In the midst of this onslaught, my Vermont colleagues and I held a public hearing to compare war stories with other lawmakers around the country who have tried to pass privacy legislation.

This hearing provided a powerful reminder that we were not the first group of legislators to face the full force of Big Tech’s lobbying machine. As Maine state Rep. Maggie O’Neill told us, “Very rarely did we hear directly from a Facebook or a Google or an Amazon.” Instead, she said, the companies let their proxy groups like TechNet and the State Privacy & Security Coalition do the lobbying for them. O’Neill said she and her fellow lawmakers had a joke: they could just look at people’s shoes in the committee room to “see who was from D.C. and who was from Maine.” The shiny lobbyist loafers stood out from the more modest footwear favored by Mainers.

Maryland state Delegate Sara Love told us, “I have not in my six years .. seen as hard a lobbying job as these folks did. They put so much money into pushing and lobbying.” She added that when it became clear the Maryland privacy bill was going to pass, the tech industry started arguing it would hurt small businesses and ran multiple ads against the legislation, including during a Baltimore Orioles opening game.

Learning from the experience of lawmakers in other states, we refined the language of our privacy bill and chose to retain a critical provision called a “private right of action” that will allow Vermont residents to sue tech companies over privacy violations. Throughout the process, we were fully aware that we could set precedents for future state and national efforts to protect consumer data. The bill – including the vital Vermont Kids Code, which would safeguard children online – is now headed to Vermont Gov. Phil Scott. Industry groups like TechNet, NetChoice, and the American Commerce Marketing Association urging him to veto the measure.

Tech companies want to continue enjoying the regulation-free environment that has allowed them to grow to monopoly scale with little regard for the privacy of their users. State lawmakers may not have the resources of those tech giants, but we have seen the real-world impact of identity theft, scams, and deepfake pornography on our constituents and understand the need for robust privacy protections. Now, we have a chance to make those protections a reality.


Monique Priestley
Monique Priestley (she/her) is serving her first term as a Vermont State Representative (Orange-2). She was appointed to the House Committee on Commerce & Economic Development, the Joint Information Technology Oversight Committee as well as the NCSL Task Force on Artificial Intelligence, Cybersecuri...