Senate narrowly votes to overturn broadband privacy rules

Posted March 24, 2017

The Senate voted 50-48 to issue a resolution of disapproval under the Congressional Review Act - a 1996 measure that allows federal lawmakers to repeal recent agency decisions. In instances of more private data collection (your financial data or browsing history), users would have needed to opt in to have this data collected, stored and sold by broadband providers. Flake is chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on privacy and technology.

Translation: ISPs can now sell your internet browsing history to advertisers.

Pai said following the vote that his goal, should the resolution be passed by the House, would be a level privacy playing field for all parts of the broadband ecosystem.

Similarly, a trade group known as the Internet and Television Association said that overturning the regulation was a "critical step towards re-establishing a balanced framework that is grounded in the long-standing and successful FTC privacy framework that applies equally to all parties operating online". The FCC's regulations were not only onerous, but also singled out ISPs with overly restrictive privacy responsibilities.

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Before the FCC gained privacy authority over broadband providers a year ago as part of its net neutrality rules, those companies did not have to get permission to use or share any data.

"This legislation will frustrate the FCC's future efforts to protect the privacy of voice and broadband customers", they said.

"Notwithstanding today's vote, ACA members are committed to maintaining their excellent record of protecting subscriber privacy".

For anyone who cares about consumer privacy, this is an enormous opportunity to wipe flawed and counterproductive rules off the books and hit reset on a vital debate. "It also creates a massive gap in consumer protection law as broadband and cable companies now have no discernible privacy requirements". But broadband providers don't now fall under FTC jurisdiction, and advocates say the FTC has historically been a weaker agency than the FCC. "At the same time, NTCA has cautioned against regulations that would treat ISPs differently than other firms in the broadband market. It will not change or lessen existing consumer privacy protections". "But simply a recognition of the importance of consumer consent". Forty-six Democratic senators and two independents voted against. "We will ask our EU consumer colleagues to press the European Commission to revoke the 'shield'".

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The argument of consumer groups and the previous FCC chair, Tom Wheeler, to that has been that privacy rules should be tightened at the FTC, rather than scrapped at the FCC. Meanwhile, the FTC only has the authority to enforce rules, not to write them. There is no evidence, NCTA said, that consumers are harmed by this "opt out" approach. If it becomes law, it would also prevent the FCC from setting similar rules again.

But such nonsensitive information is limited - most customer data would be considered sensitive under the FCC's definitions. The resolution will now proceed to the House, where it is also expected to pass. "With no rule on the books, there is no cop on the beat to protect people who pay for internet services, leaving Americans with few options to protect their privacy online".

Public Knowledge Policy Fellow Dallas Harris called it "a clear sign that American interests come second to those of broadband providers...."

What's more, a state-by-state patchwork of consumer protection enforcement is bad for customers and telecoms. "The Senate's action is a step in the right direction to restore the status quo ante".

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