The Senate voted Thursday to make it easier for internet service providers to share sensitive information about their customers, a first step in overturning landmark privacy rules that consumer advocates and Democratic lawmakers view as crucial protections in the digital age. The vote was passed along party lines, 50-48, with all but two Republicans voting in favor of the repeal and every Democrat voting against it. Two Republican Senators did not vote.
Passed by the Federal Communications Commission in the final months of the Obama presidency, the privacy rules prohibited internet providers like Comcast and Verizon from selling customer information, including browsing history and location data, without first getting consent. The rules also compelled providers to tell customers about the data they collect, the purpose of that data collection, and to identify the types of third party companies that might be given access to that information.
But the telecom industry and Republicans in Congress fiercely opposed the new regulations. Critics argued that these rules unfairly target internet providers, restricting their ability to turn personal information into targeted advertising and other tailored services, even as giant web companies like Google and Facebook are free to collect and sell our information without those limitations.
Last month, Ajit Pai, the new Trump-appointed Chair of the FCC moved to block a piece of the privacy rules that required internet providers to adopt reasonable security measures and notify customers when data breaches occur. Along with Maureen Ohlhausen, the acting chair of the Federal Trade Commision who was also appointed by President Trump, Pai believes that consumers will be better protected with a single set of internet privacy rules, ones that encompass providers like Comcast and web services like Facebook.
“The federal government shouldn’t favor one set of companies over another — and certainly not when it comes to a marketplace as dynamic as the Internet,” Pai and Ohlhausen said in a joint statement earlier this month. “So going forward, we will work together to establish a technology-neutral privacy framework for the online world.”
But some privacy advocates and Democratic lawmakers view that stance as disingenuous. “If Republicans and the industry want to [work] hand in hand with consumers and come up with a comprehensive privacy regime, we’re happy to meet them at the table,” said Gaurav Laroia, policy counsel at Free Press. “But repealing the broadband privacy rules doesn't get us any closer and instead leaves a regulatory black hole where there is no effective privacy protections for customers of broadband ISPs.”
Marc Rotenberg, the president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) told BuzzFeed News that instead of pushing to expand privacy rules to other companies, the FCC is moving to undo the modest safeguards that were already in place. “This was a short-sighted decision that puts American consumers at risk of increased identity theft, data breach, and financial fraud," he said.
On the Senate floor Thursday Democratic Senator Ron Wyden defended the privacy regulations as a crucial tool for transparency and a way to give consumers some control over their digital footprint. “The broadband privacy rules are not some kind of blitzkrieg attack on monetizing consumer data,” he said. “But simply a recognition of the importance of consumer consent.”
Following the vote to repeal, the sole Democratic Commissioners of the FCC and FTC, Mignon Clyburn and Terrell McSweeny, said in a joint statement that the legislation is the "antithesis" of putting consumers first. "It also creates a massive gap in consumer protection law as broadband and cable companies now have no discernible privacy requirements," they said.
Other proponents of the privacy rules have argued that regulations on ISPs are necessary because broadband providers can monitor all of our unencrypted internet traffic, unlike online advertising companies whose tracking of customers can be blocked using free browser tools. "Your ISP is in a privileged position, where they can see everything," Jeremy Gillula, a senior staff technologist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told BuzzFeed News.
"We are one step closer to a world where ISPs can snoop on our traffic, sell our private information to the highest bidder, and pre-install spyware on our mobile phones," he said.
Neema Singh Guliani, the ACLU's legislative counsel told BuzzFeed News in a statement that a successful repeal would undo efforts to protect customers' most sensitive information in favor of corporate interests. “It is extremely disappointing that the Senate voted today to sacrifice the privacy rights of Americans in the interest of protecting the profits of major internet companies, including Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon," she said.
With the Senate’s passage, the resolution to strip the FCC’s privacy rules will move to the House of Representatives next, and if it gets the expected votes there, the legislation would need Trump’s signature, which could then block the FCC from passing similar rules in the future.