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Right-to-know protections get favorable recommendations from House lawmakers

  • The State House dome as seen on March 5, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) ELIZABETH FRANTZ

Monitor staff
Published: 3/2/2021 5:16:30 PM

The House Judiciary Committee voted in favor of a bill Tuesday that would prevent mobile app companies from sharing an owner’s location unless explicitly requested by that owner.

In a bipartisan vote, the panel voted to recommend that House Bill 384 be approved by the House at its next meeting. The bill would bar a developer of an app to make someone's location available to a third party – whether by selling it or giving it out – unless the customer gave specific permission.

The vote was one of many taken Tuesday when committee members give up-or-down advisory votes on whether the bill should be passed or killed.

Among its actions, the committee voted to approve medical monitoring claims to be against companies found at fault for PFAS pollution; approve a ban on the state from using surveillance cameras to track cars or pedestrians on roads or sidewalks; and recommended to kill a bill allowing lawsuits against social media companies for censorship;

Most committee members voted in support of HB 384, citing the rise in location sharing methods by smartphone apps and the ways it can be used against consumers. 

“This is not right,” said Rep. Kurt Wuelper, a Strafford Republican who sponsored the bill. “This should be stopped. If we can only do it in New Hampshire, then we should do it in New Hampshire.”

Many said that the location sharing should be regulated at the federal level, but that the state could do it in the meantime. 

“While I don’t think that the ideal answer is to have this handled on a state by state basis, the journey of 1,000 miles begins with one step, and I believe this is a solid first step for this state to take in protecting – in an appropriate and responsible way – protecting personal privacy,” said Rep. Marjorie Smith, a Durham Democrat. 

But some had concerns. Rep. Paul Berch, a Westmoreland Democrat, said that the bill was worded too broadly, and could cut out legitimate services that help consumers.

“It’s easy just to say privacy, privacy, privacy,” he said. “But we still need to have legislation that is clear and concise and avoids collateral consequences that we may not like.” He also objected that the bill did not distinguish between anonymous location sharing and non-anonymous location sharing. 

Another, Rep. Joe Alexander, a Goffstown Republican, said that it would have a harsh economic impact. “I think this really adversely affects the gig economy,” he said, alluding to the rise of applications like Uber and Doordash. “We should be looking for ways to help the gig economy grow.”

Alexander said that he'd rather see federal legislation take effect, noting that the lack of a national approach would result in a patchwork system for companies. “It’s not really a productive way of doing things,” he said.

The committee voted 20-0 for another bill, House Bill 108, which would require more accountability from towns and other public bodies that go into non-public session, which prevents the public from attending or having an understanding of what was discussed.

HB 108 would require towns to take clear minutes during these sessions that include the date and time of the non-public session and the exact exemption the town was relying upon under the state’s right-to-know law in order to exempt that meeting from the public. The record of the session shall “be promptly made available for public disclosure.”

“I think it’s a real gain for transparency with minor effort,” said Rep. Mark McLean, a Manchester Republican. 

Right-to-know expansions endorsed

The committee took on a series of bills address the state’s right-to-know law – the records statute that requires transparency of state and local public meetings. 

Among those votes: A move to recommend House Bill 206, a bill that subject collective bargaining meetings to the right-to-know law, while exempting situations where only one party is present. Supporters said the action Rep. Rebecca McBeath, a Portsmouth Democrat, said that the bill would instead create only an illusion of transparency, by creating “posturing and a lack of candor.”

Meanwhile, members voted to recommend killing House Bill 453, which would prohibit a court from requiring the mandatory disclosure of sources from a journalist via subpoena.

Alexander moved that the bill be killed, arguing that the bill lacked a definition of what a journalist is.

But the committee also came together to kill a bill from Rep. Al Baldasaro, a Londonderry Democrat, that would require newspapers to write follow-up stories for people who had been arrested. 

Rep. Charlotte DiLorenzo, a Newmarket Democrat, said that the bill was not needed, and could be in violation of both the state and federal constitutions.

“Members of the press are opposed to the bill,” she noted Tuesday.

State litigation addressed

The committee also voted 21-0 on House Bill 83, which would prohibit non-disparagement clauses in any settlements with governmental units.

On a less unanimous vote, the committee voted in favor of House Bill 111, which would allow citizens to sue in state court for any injuries caused by an agent of the state of New Hampshire that violate state or federal rights, 19-2. 

Lawsuit-enabling bills killed 

At one point, the committee voted to recommend killing House Bill 133, which would allow citizens to sue social media companies in state courts over censorship concerns.

“This bill is really pretty unworkable,” said Rep. Mike Sylvia, a Belmont Republican who recommended it be killed. The bill would restrict New Hampshire companies rather than the intended social media giants, Sylvia argued.

Rep. Timothy Horrigan, a Durham Democrat, said that the first amendment covered the right of the “press” to not publish content they do not want to, likening social media companies to publishers. 

Medical monitoring advanced

On Tuesday, the Judiciary Committee voted 11-9 to recommend passing House Bill 368, which would allow medical monitoring claims against those at fault for PFAS damages. That idea had already been vetoed by Gov. Chris Sununu in 2019 and 2020, but 

“The genie is really out of the bottle with regard to medical monitoring,” McClane said. “The question really is are we going to leave all this to the courts or are we as a legislature going to be a voice and show some leadership. 

Sylvia spoke against the bill, that tapping into a pool of money for medical monitoring from people who may not need it would take away potential compensation from those who did need it. 

At another point, committee voted narrowly on House Bill 135, 12-9, which would require companies and other parties to be financially responsible for water that they had polluted. 

On that bill, Republican Rep. Mark McClane recommended the bill, and offered an amendment to reduce the liability period from five years to two.

Though he had been initially opposed, McClane said he changed his mind after the water supplier Pennichuck was forced to raise its rates as a result of pollution, despite having no involvement in the creation of the pollution. 

The bills will move forward to the full House floor at a later date; Speaker Sherman Packard has not yet announced a date or venue. 

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at 369-3307, edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @e dewittNH.)

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