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As Consumers Wait, House Revisits and Amends Equifax Bill

November 30, 2018

Lowell Sun

BOSTON -- A bill intended to protect consumer data from security breaches resurfaced in the House on Thursday, 288 days after it first cleared that branch.

The bill requires companies to seek the consent of consumers before using or obtaining their credit reports, and provides for free credit monitoring to affected consumers after a breach.

“It puts consumers back in the driving seat of their own credit, and I think that’s really important,” Rep. Jennifer Benson, who filed the original version of the bill with Sen. Barbara L’Italien, told the News Service. “There are so many pieces of our identity that are out there in the public realm that we lose control over, and this is regaining some of that control.”

Benson said she began working on data security legislation in response to the high-profile breach at Target in 2013, and thinks, after Thursday’s House activity, “we’re going to be able to get it done.”

Spurred again to address the issue after news broke in September 2017 of a massive data breach at the credit reporting agency Equifax, lawmakers had called for quick action on the bill at various points along its winding path through the legislative process.

The House in February and the Senate in April passed different versions of the bill after the co-chairs of the Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure were unable to agree on language by a February deadline.

In late July, a conference committee produced a compromise that lawmakers sent to Gov. Baker, who returned it with an amendment on Aug. 3, after formal sessions ended for 2018. The bill has languished since then, until Thursday.

Baker’s amendment recommended language he said would allow state agencies tasked with ensuring child support payment and protecting the credit history of children under state care to continue their work despite the bill’s new restrictions on accessing consumer credit reports.

He also sought to address what he described as “unintended consequences for financial institutions seeking to extend pre-qualified offers of credit and insurance coverage to Massachusetts consumers, a practice that is also expressly permitted under Federal law,” and recommended a section permitting the Department of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulations to promulgate any regulations required for the bill to be effective.

“I understood, obviously, the governor’s amendment,” Benson said. “I think that was smart. It’s something that honestly we were not aware of when we first wrote the bill, and I think it’s something that definitely needed to be addressed.”

The House on Thursday adopted a modified version of Baker’s amendment and sent the bill back over to the Senate, which has not yet acted on it.

An aide to Sen. Barbara L’Italien, the Senate chair of the Consumer Protection Committee, said L’Italien is eager to see the bill become law and is in the process of reviewing the amendment with Senate leadership.

Rep. Tackey Chan, the committee’s House chair, called the new amendment a “comprehensive update.”

“We have worked hard to ensure that consumers have access to the resources needed after a breach occurs, while also making sure that the Commonwealth is in step with federal data security regulations,” Chan said in a statement to the News Service.

The amendment, according to Chan’s office, streamlines some language from Baker’s proposal and modifies citations to U.S. Code with the goal of avoiding confusion or conflict with federal law.

In the months that state lawmakers spent working on the bill, legislators at the federal level passed a law tackling what had been a major component of the Massachusetts bill -- making it free to place or lift a credit freeze, for which companies had previously been able to charge fees.

That law, which President Donald Trump signed in May, took effect on Sept. 21, while Baker’s amendment was still before the House Committee on Bills in Third Reading.

The so-called Equifax bill was one of three pieces of legislation Baker sent back to lawmakers after the July 31 end of informal sessions. One, dealing with civics education, was signed into law on Nov. 8 after lawmakers and Baker agreed to a modified amendment.

The other, which would tax and regulate short-term rentals through platforms like Airbnb, remains before the House Committee on Bills in Third Reading.

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