Congress sent proposed legislation to President Trump on Tuesday that wipes away landmark online privacy protections,
the first salvo in what is likely to become a significant reworking of
the rules governing Internet access in an era of Republican dominance.
a party-line vote, House Republicans freed Internet service providers
such as Verizon, AT&T and Comcast of protections approved just last
year that had sought to limit what companies could do with information
such as customer browsing habits, app usage history, location data and
Social Security numbers. The rules also had required providers to
strengthen safeguards for customer data against hackers and thieves.
The Senate has voted to nullify those measures, which were set to take effect at the end of this year. If Trump signs
the legislation as expected, providers will be able to monitor their
customers’ behavior online and, without their permission, use their
personal and financial information to sell highly targeted ads — making
them rivals to Google and Facebook in the $83 billion online advertising market.
providers could also sell their users’ information directly to
marketers, financial firms and other companies that mine personal data —
all of whom could use the data without consumers’ consent. In addition,
the Federal Communications Commission, which initially drafted the
protections, would be forbidden from issuing similar rules in the
Search engines and streaming-video sites already collect
usage data on consumers. But consumer activists claim that Internet
providers may know much more about a person’s activities because they
can see all of the sites a customer visits.
although consumers can easily abandon sites whose privacy practices they
don’t agree with, it is far more difficult to choose a different
Internet provider, the activists said. Many Americans have a choice of
only one or two broadband companies in their area, according to federal
Advocates for tough privacy protections online called Tuesday’s vote “a tremendous setback for America.”
vote means that Americans will never be safe online from having their
most personal details stealthily scrutinized and sold to the highest
bidder,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for
Supporters of Tuesday’s repeal vote argued
that the privacy regulations stifle innovation by forcing Internet
providers to abide by unreasonably strict guidelines.
privacy] will be enhanced by removing the uncertainty and confusion
these rules will create,” said Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who
chairs the House subcommittee that oversees the FCC.
Policy analysts said the deregulatory effort may be the first of
several that could alter the future of the Internet. Although regulators
under President Barack Obama had moved to limit the power of Internet
providers — by restricting what they could do with customer information
and curbing their ability to block websites or slow down certain types
of content — momentum appears to be moving in the opposite direction.
example, consumer advocates fear that Congress or the FCC’s new
Republican chairman, Ajit Pai, may seek to roll back the agency’s rules
on net neutrality — the policy that forbids Internet providers from
blocking content they don’t like or charging websites a fee to reach
consumers over faster Internet speeds. Industry analysts said Tuesday
that the FCC is also poised to deregulate the $40-billion-a-year
industry for data connections used by hospitals, universities and ATMs.
vote is a sign that Internet providers will be treated more
permissively at a time when conservatives control the executive and
legislative branches. That could be a boon for companies such as Verizon
and Comcast as they race to become online advertising giants.
providers have historically made their money from selling access to the
Web. But now these providers are looking to increase their revenue by
tapping the vast troves of data their customers generate as they visit
websites, watch videos, read information and download apps.
Industry backers say that allowing providers to use data-driven
targeting could benefit consumers by leading to more relevant
advertisements and innovative business models. AT&T, for instance,
used to offer Internet discounts to consumers in exchange for letting
the company monitor their browsing history. With Tuesday’s vote, such
programs could see a return, and be marketed as a way to access cheaper
Internet — although consumer groups have criticized these plans as a way
for providers to charge customers a premium for their privacy.
vote took aim at FCC rules that were approved in October over strident
Republican objections. At the time, the agency’s Democratic leadership
argued that consumers deserved the same privacy protections governing
legacy telephone service. As more Americans turn to the Internet to find
jobs, do homework and seek education, the agency said, consumers needed
new protections to keep pace with technology.
advocates said the FCC’s rules defined privacy far too broadly. The
industry favors the interpretation of another agency — the Federal Trade
Commission — that does not consider browsing history or app usage data
to be sensitive and protected.
But the FTC does not have the
authority to punish Internet providers that violate its guidelines. That
is because of a rule that leaves oversight of those companies to the
As a result, Tuesday’s vote may release Internet providers
from the FCC’s privacy regulation, but the FTC would also be unable to
enforce its own guidelines on the industry without new authority from
“One would hope — because consumers want their privacy protected —
that they would be good actors, and they would ask permission and do
these nice things,” said Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) in a House committee
hearing Monday. “But there’s no law now that says they have to, and
there’s no cop on the beat saying, ‘Hey, we caught you doing something.’
Pai, the FCC chairman, called the legislation “appropriate”
and blamed his Democratic predecessor for executive overreach. He also
said that responsibility for regulating Internet providers should fall
to the FTC.
“Moving forward, I want the American people to know that the FCC will
work with the FTC to ensure that consumers’ online privacy is protected
though a consistent and comprehensive framework,” Pai said. “The best
way to achieve that result would be to return jurisdiction over
broadband providers’ privacy practices to the FTC, with its decades of
experience and expertise in this area.”
Pai has said that his
agency could continue to bring lawsuits against firms that are alleged
to have violated consumer privacy, even if the FCC privacy rules were to
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