SACRAMENTO — A California lawmaker behind an industry-backed bill to narrow the state’s landmark Privacy Act is married to a top executive at Ring, the Amazon-owned tech company in the thick of a national debate over consumer data and government surveillance, according to ethics disclosures reviewed by POLITICO.
Assemblywoman Jacqui Irwin’s husband, Jon Irwin, is chief operating officer for Santa Monica-based Ring, Inc., a home security and video doorbell startup that Amazon acquired last year for about $1 billion, state ethics disclosures show.
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Like other companies that collect vast amounts of consumer data, Ring — and its parent company, Amazon — has a financial stake in the details of California’s groundbreaking data-privacy law. Industry groups, including those representing Amazon, have been scrambling to change the law before it takes effect Jan. 1.
“We can talk about this later,” Jacqui Irwin said, side-stepping questions about a potential conflict outside her office last week. “It’s a little bit offensive there.”
The first law of its kind in the nation, the California Consumer Privacy Act will give Californians the right to ask companies to disclose personal information collected about them, not to sell it, and to delete it. With a federal privacy deal nowhere in sight, California’s rules are expected to set the standard for the nation, alongside Europe’s new regulations.
Irwin’s prominent role in California’s privacy debate has raised ethical questions about when lawmakers should recuse themselves from legislative decisions and committees.
One of the proposals that Irwin (D-Thousand Oaks) carried this year was blasted by consumer-privacy groups as an attempt to gut the law by exempting more kinds of data from the new requirements. In an early version of the bill, the lawmaker also proposed striking from the act a provision requiring companies to disclose or delete data associated with “households” upon request, a change likely to have eased the regulatory burden on smart-device companies like Ring.
As other privacy bills were debated, in committee or on the floor, Irwin rarely abstained from voting.
The third-term lawmaker and former mayor has disclosed her spouse’s employment on her statements of economic interest, which are publicly available. California’s Fair Political Practices Commission, which enforces the state’s Political Reform Act, told POLITICO this month it had not received or investigated any conflict-of-interest complaints about Irwin.
The assemblywoman, a systems engineer by training who co-chairs a national cybersecurity task force, said it was natural for her to be involved in data-privacy legislation. She said she found questions from POLITICO about her role to be offensive in light of her professional background.
In a statement sent to POLITICO, Irwin highlighted her background and stressed that her aim since the law was hastily passed last year has been to find “reasonable compromise.”
“My role in the privacy debate in the Legislature is focused on bringing people together and solving the practical issues posed to us as policy makers and is independent of any job or role my husband may have,” she said. “My education and professional background as a systems engineer provides me distinct qualifications in the Legislature to weigh in on matters related to technology.”
Irwin has emerged this year as a key figure in negotiations over the California Consumer Privacy Act. While some lawmakers have pushed to strengthen the new law’s enforcement or expand its protections, others have proposed changes sought by the business community. Irwin advanced a proposal backed by a large coalition of industry groups, including the California Chamber of Commerce, TechNet and the Internet Association.
As she made her case for AB 873, Irwin did not mention home-security video feeds, but she used store security-camera footage as an example of data that would be burdensome and risky for businesses to be required to link to consumers in response to data-deletion requests.
The Privacy Act currently defines “personal information” broadly, encompassing not just names and addresses but geolocation information, device IDs and biometric data. Privacy experts say that would include feeds from Ring’s video doorbells, some of which are being shared with law enforcement — with consumer consent — in hundreds of communities nationwide, as reported this month by the Washington Post.
“Unquestionably when you walk up to that Ring device, it’s capturing personal information,” said Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney for the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of the consumer advocacy groups that opposed AB 873. “This is why a company like Ring would be concerned about the obligations imposed on them by CCPA.”
The Privacy Act also threatens to raise costs and reduce revenue streams for major companies that collect, analyze and sell customer information for targeted advertising. Amazon warned investors this year in SEC filings that “government regulation is evolving” and that unfavorable changes could slow growth and increase costs.
To mitigate such effects, trade groups representing Amazon and other major international companies have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying the state Capitol in recent months, circulating proposed language for exemptions and tweaks.
One of those groups, TechNet, named Irwin a “Legislator of the Year” in 2017.
Voting records show that Irwin has participated in matters that would appear to affect her spouse’s firm or parent company.
She voted on the Assembly floor in favor of a proposal from Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland) aimed at regulating Amazon’s dealings with California vendors. (Amazon has dropped its opposition to the proposal.)
But Irwin was one of just six lawmakers out of 80 to vote against the so-called Alexa bill by Republican Jordan Cunningham (R-Templeton) that would have prohibited smart speaker devices installed in homes, such as Amazon’s Alexa, to retain or sell recorded conversations without a customer’s consent, among other restrictions. Cunningham pulled that bill from a Senate committee and plans to move it again next year.
Besides being represented by TechNet and the Internet Association, Amazon alone spent $186,000 on lobbying the state Capitol in the first half of the year, state records show. The company listed AB 873 and AB 1395 among the bills it influenced.
“Look, if your spouse has a financial interest in a company and you are voting on or are proposing legislation that would affect that company, I think there is an enormously good argument to be made that it could be a conflict of interest under the Political Reform Act,” said Jessica Levinson, an ethics and campaign-finance expert at Loyola Law School.
Such ethical questions surface periodically in the Legislature. Last year, Assemblyman Bill Quirk (D-Hayward) took heat for introducing wildfire-related legislation that would benefit PG&E, where his son worked. And Senate Pro Tem Toni Atkins, who carried a major affordable housing funding bill in 2017, has weathered scrutiny over the years because of her spouse’s affordable housing consulting business. Atkins told the Los Angeles Times that she and her wife regularly consulted lawyers to make sure they were following “the letter of the law.”
A review of economic interest disclosure forms on the Assembly Privacy and Consumer Protection Committee, on which Irwin serves, showed that Assemblyman Jay Obernolte (R-Big Bear Lake) held between $100,000 and $1 million in Apple stock and owns a software company; Assemblyman Marc Berman (D-Palo Alto) had between $10,000 and $100,000 invested in Google stock; and Committee Chairman Ed Chau (D-Monterey Park) had between $100,000 and $1 million invested in Alibaba Group and in China Mobile.
Each of the lawmakers told POLITICO that those investments did not compromise their work in the Capitol.
“Ever since being elected to the Legislature, my focus has been to fight for consumer privacy rights and my extensive record speaks for itself,” said Chau, who co-authored the Privacy Act last year and has since carried other bills supported by consumer-privacy groups.
State conflict-of-interest law prohibits lawmakers from engaging in decisions in which they have a financial interest, said Adam Silver, chief counsel to Assembly legislative ethics committee. But, he said, the “public generally” exception applies to cases in which an entire industry, profession or trade group would be affected by a law — rather than a small group of companies.
The Assembly Speaker’s office doesn’t consider statements of economic interest when making committee appointments, and it is generally up to lawmakers to recuse themselves when appropriate, said spokesperson John Casey.
In a July showdown over AB 873, Irwin told the Senate Judiciary Committee her bill contained “a short list of critical issues” that the California Chamber of Commerce had distilled from a much longer list of industry concerns.
“It is key that the CCPA is workable,” Irwin argued at the hearing, “because it should be the model for all states to adopt, avoiding calls for federal preemption that under this administration would likely be far weaker.”
But Chairwoman Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) pushed back, calling it “a dangerous bill” and “what is sometimes politely referred to as a jailbreak.” It failed, though one of its less contentious provisions made it into another privacy proposal with Jackson’s approval.
Several consumer-privacy advocates interviewed for this story would not say whether they believed Irwin’s involvement presented a financial conflict of interest. But they did draw a link between the lawmaker’s proposal and her husband’s company.
“I think it is quite likely that 873, had it passed, would have limited the application of the CCPA to the information that Ring has,” said Chris Conley, a technology and data-privacy attorney with the ACLU of Northern California. “AB 873 certainly would have affected Ring.”
Irwin told POLITICO she thinks the media have gotten the Privacy Act narrative wrong. It’s not about strengthening or weakening the law, she said, but making it work so that businesses will comply and other states will follow suit.
Before joining Ring in 2017, Jon Irwin was head of global business development for Amazon Instant Video, according to his LinkedIn page. He earns a salary over $100,000, the highest income category on the state disclosure form.
The potential for a financial conflict of interest would be less of a concern if Jon Irwin held a less powerful post at the company or Jacqui Irwin was not as involved in privacy legislation, Levinson said.
“It’s both sides that give me pause,” Levinson said. “It’s that she’s so seemingly aggressive on the issue in a way that would benefit his company, and he is so high up in the company.”