Congress Passes Consumer Privacy Rollback

By Paula Bernier March 29, 2017

They may have failed to repeal and replace Obamacare, but President Donald Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress are having some success at rolling back regulations in an effort to make life easier for businesses. And the big Internet service providers like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon are thrilled. But many of their customers probably will not be.

Yesterday, the House of Representatives voted 215-205 to eliminate privacy rules aimed at protecting the browsing histories and data of U.S. broadband subscribers. The Senate last week voted 50-48 on the same measure. The legislation now makes its way to the president’s desk for his signature.

If President Trump signs the legislation, as expected, it will eliminate the rules the Federal Communications Commission erected last fall to make ISPs disclose the sale and collection of private customer data, and to require these broadband service providers to get consumers to opt in to the collection of browsing history and private financial data collection.

The FCC put these rules in place after AT&T and Comcast moved to make users pay more for privacy, and it was revealed that Verizon was using super cookies to track users around the Internet. These companies are interested in collecting customer data so they can build businesses around targeted online advertising. In fact, that was a key reason why Verizon acquired AOL and why the company is now working to purchase Yahoo.

Companies like Facebook and Google already do targeted online advertising. The difference in the case of the ISPs, some would argue, is that while people can choose to be on Facebook and opt to use the Google browser, they have to use an ISP simply to get online.

The move to rollback the FCC’s online privacy rules relative to the ISPs was made possible by the Congressional Review Act. That allows Congress to rollback recently passed regulations and prevents implementation of the rolled back regulation to be resuscitated later on.

While the big ISPs like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon are clearly the impetus for the rollback, not all ISPs are on board with this move. Recently, a group of smaller ISPs, other networking companies, and some academic institutions sent a letter to U.S. Representatives opposing the repeal of the FCC privacy rules.

“If the rules are repealed,” the letter said, “large ISPs across America would resume spying on their customers, selling their data, and denying them a practical and informed choice in the matter.”

The Center for Digital Democracy, meanwhile, recently published a blog opposing the rollback. In that blog, Jeff Chester, executive director of the D.C.-based center, added that the push by the ISPs and ad industry lobbyists to put consumer privacy in the hands of the Federal Trade Commission rather than the FCC is a mistake. He says that’s because the FTC lacks “any real clout” and it would enable the ad companies and ISPs to run roughshod over consumer privacy rights.

All this also ties into the Internet of Things, according to Chester.

“The ISPs, data-marketing companies, and their supporters are also fighting against the privacy rule because they know we are also on the eve of a new era—the Internet of Things—that will generate even more personal information about us,” Chester writes. “In today’s digital era, data is power. And that power should be in the hands of the people—not those that wish to financially and politically benefit by harvesting our information.”




Edited by Alicia Young

Executive Editor, TMC

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