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Silicon Valley Meets Humanity

What is the responsibility of the tech industry when it comes to Privacy?

PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel likes his privacy. Angry at Gawker for discussing his sexuality in 2007, he paid $10 million in legal expenses to finance several lawsuits brought by others against the gossip site. But Thiel claims he wasn't just out for himself. "It's less about revenge and more about specific deterrence," he said, and called his move against Gawker "one of my greater philanthropic things that I've done."

If Thiel really wants to make the world safe for privacy, he might consider laying off the media and laying into his Silicon Valley colleagues, many of whom are rather dismissive of the notion that privacy matters.

As Reddit CEO Steve Huffman recently boasted to an interviewer in explaining his company's business model, "We know your dark secrets. We know everything."

Gathering and repackaging personal information is a multibillion-dollar business, and a number of tech companies have been bold in their efforts to make sure it stays that way. Indeed, legions of lobbyists for the tech industry have aggressively worked around the country to undermine privacy protections for consumers of all stripes, including children.

In Illinois, for example, privacy advocates won an important victory with the passage of a law that offers strict guidelines for how social media companies can use facial recognition technologies to identify users online and off. Companies can use this technology to send targeted ads and create consumer profiles, without the consumers' knowledge. But recently, tech lobbyists succeeded in introducing new legislation that would weaken the law, creating an exception for existing photo-tagging technology and preempting several class-action lawsuits.

In North Carolina, a bill influenced by tech industry lobbyists would seriously compromise student privacy protections in that state, allowing education companies to repurpose and reuse sensitive information, like teacher evaluations, socioeconomic data and geolocation information.

Tech companies are meddling with privacy rights in California too. Before the ink was dry on the Student Online Personal Information Protection Act, which prohibits education software vendors from selling student data and using the information to market to kids, an industry trade group backed by the nation's largest tech companies introduced new legislation in Sacramento that would have weakened many of the key protections in the original bill. The industry-backed proposal stalled in the Legislature, but advocates are bracing for another fight.

When the tech industry loses a privacy fight, it tries again; but often it doesn't lose. Also in California, tech interests succeeded in thwarting a 2015 attempt to limit the ability of companies to track the whereabouts of kids and other consumers. The proposal would have required companies to clearly explain to customers how their location information would be used and shared when they installed a new app. It also would have required companies to obtain consent before collecting their customers' geolocation data.

Too many in Silicon Valley appear to be guided by the desire to put profits and business innovation above all else. They operate like the robber barons of our past, with little or no regard for the best interest of future generations.

In a recent speech in Hiroshima, Japan, President Obama offered a reminder of the fundamental moral responsibilities of those at innovation's cutting edge.

"Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us," the president said, citing the need for "a moral revolution" to match our rapid societal change.

The next revolution in Silicon Valley must be one that ensures the right to privacy.

Jim Steyer
Jim is Common Sense Media's CEO and founder -- read all about him here.