Former presidential candidate Andrew Yang is wading deeper into the fight over online privacy regulation by joining the campaign for California’s Proposition 24, a November ballot measure that would rewrite the state’s landmark data protection law by adding protections for sensitive data and creating a regulatory agency to enforce it.
POLITICO spoke to the former-entrepreneur-turned-Democratic-politician about why he got involved in an effort thousands of miles from his home in New York, how California’s privacy debate could affect federal policy and whether he is angling for a position in a potential Joe Biden administration — or even public office in the Golden State.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
We’re used to thinking of you on the national stage. What compelled you to get involved in a campaign to rework California’s data privacy law?
I’ve been trying to activate people on data and privacy rights nationwide for a number of months. It was one of the issues I ran on during my presidential campaign, and then, when my campaign concluded, I started this data dividend project [advocating for people to get paid when tech companies profit off their data]. It was inspired, in part, by the protections of the California Consumer Privacy Act.
But then it became clear to me that the CCPA needed reinforcement and strengthening. I got excited, in large part, because even in the last number of weeks, seeing Europe step forward with a higher standard [with the General Data Protection Regulation] while the U.S. is still trying to figure out what to do.
It seems pretty clear to me that state legislatures are going to end up taking the lead, with California front and center. When I realized that there was an opportunity to have California help the U.S. catch up to global leaders in protecting people’s data and privacy rights, it was a no brainer for me to do everything I could to support it.
You talked a lot during your campaign about technological innovation and AI in its impact on humanity. How does data privacy fit into that picture?
You could say my campaign was about universal basic income, which it obviously was, but it also was about managing technological change in a way that works for us, that works for people.
The utilization of our data extends beyond just that $200 billion-plus that tech companies and data brokers make off our data every year. It extends into our mental health and our children’s mental health in particular, our democracy working or not working, and even into issues around choice and free will — whether we’re actually ourselves becoming the product and being sold and resold through this system of surveillance capitalism that we’ve allowed to sprout underneath our noses over the last number of years.
California’s consumer privacy law is supposed to give people more control over their personal information, but in your view is it still too easy for companies that trade in our personal information to skirt the spirit of the law? And how would Prop. 24 change that?
It’s hard to see any concrete changes in the way our data is being treated based upon the CCPA, in large part because there’s no dedicated enforcement mechanism. Under the CCPA it is possible for the attorney general in California to do something, but realistically we know that the AG has a host of things to grapple with, and this would not be at the top of their priority list at any given moment.
The new rules under Prop. 24 would actually create a dedicated agency to enforce our data rights in California, and then you would see meaningful changes in corporate behavior.
Your campaign platform on tech regulation said that as president you’d “preempt state regulations, when possible, to create one national framework.” Do you support federal preemption on data privacy?
In an ideal world you would have a federal framework around our data and privacy rights, but it makes sense to me that some states, particularly California which I believe is more savvy in these issues, would end up leading the way.
One of the things I’m excited about is that as California passes Prop. 24, then people in other states will say, “Wait a minute, why do people in California have these rights and protections that we don’t have and are my data rights in Texas somehow worth less than people in California?” Then you’ll see a number of states follow California’s lead and then a national standard may follow.
That’s the way that we can help make these changes. I think in an ideal world you’d have federal legislation that mirrored Prop. 24 nationwide. The thing you don’t want to do is to have Congress set a national standard that doesn’t meaningfully impact the treatment of our data in ways that help consumers.
On the 2020 campaign trail you also talked about reforming Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields internet companies from liability over user content they host. Both President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden have called for it to be repealed. Do you agree, and if not, what changes do you support?
You don’t want to eliminate it altogether. But you need to try to create more constructive incentives through Section 230, where when things are falling into a gray area and could end up being a public detriment there is a legitimate cost or legitimate process [to address companies hosting such material].
Right now we’re in the worst of all worlds. We’re relying upon this out-of-date law that could not have envisioned Twitter and Facebook and YouTube existing in the way that they do today. And these companies have legitimately come of age, relying upon these protections. But the protections aren’t working the way that they’re supposed to at all.
This is a set of issues that I really want to help us address. As you know, I’m for Joe and Kamala, so hopefully under a Biden-Harris administration we can start to do the hard work of figuring out what Section 230 should actually look like in 2020 or 2021.
On your political future: You’ve tweeted recently about the possibility of serving as labor secretary. What positions do you see as most appealing to you in a potential Biden administration?
I’d love an opportunity to address some of the problems I ran on. And so something that faces these technology issues would appeal to me.
The core of my campaign was universal basic income. That doesn’t fall directly under a given agency. But I think there’s a major drive towards humanizing our economy. And that includes better treatment of our data, that could include benefits that go with you regardless of your employment status. Anything I could do that’s going to move the needle on these big problems, I’ll take that opportunity to help if Joe and Kamala will have me.
Is the role of U.S. Chief Technology Officer something that you’d be interested in?
I’d be interested in modernizing our approach to technology issues. I think that the U.S. Digital Service [which works to improve federal use of information technology] is just scratching the surface of its potential and its ability to help lead our government in our approach to some of our issues.
I proposed the Department of the Attention Economy [during the presidential campaign] because I think that the functioning of social media at this point is the way tens of millions of Americans get their information. And our government is out to lunch on those issues. So if I can do something to help us get our arms around these problems, I’d be excited for it.
Right now, the CTO is probably the closest thing to what we’re describing, but I think that we need something more dedicated and robust if we’re going to truly address some of these technological issues.
You’ve now ventured into California politics in the privacy debate and you’ve said in the past that you have interest in going into state politics, maybe as a mayor or governor. Is there a public office position in California that interests you?
Right now I’m focused on having Joe and Kamala win and trying to get our country out of this dark hole we’re in, but certainly I have a soft spot for California because I’ve spent a lot of time there. My parents actually met at Berkeley. My brother’s named after the Lawrence [Hall of Science]. I have a lot of friends in California. But right now I’m focused on the national race and trying to help us all turn the page.