Privacy Advocates Pour Hate on Vote To Repeal Internet Privacy Protections

Mar 29, 2017

The House of Representatives voted on Tuesday night to roll back historic consumer privacy protections that the Federal Communications Commission had imposed on Internet service providers. The party-line vote followed a similar move in the Senate last week, and President Donald Trump has said he will sign the proposal.

The FCC rules, adopted in October, required broadband Internet providers like Verizon (vz), AT&T (t), Comcast (cmcsa), and Charter Communications (chtr) to get permission from customers before sharing or selling personal information such as web browsing history, geographic location, financial information, and children's information.

Former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, an Obama appointee who was responsible for the original rules, took to the New York Times op-ed page to lambast Republicans for the repeal.

"The bill is an effort by the F.C.C.’s new Republican majority and congressional Republicans to overturn a simple but vitally important concept—namely that the information that goes over a network belongs to you as the consumer, not to the network hired to carry it," he wrote. "Reversing those protections is a dream for cable and telephone companies, which want to capitalize on the value of such personal information," he added.

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Wheeler's successor, Ajit Pai, welcomed the vote. "Last year, the Federal Communications Commission pushed through, on a party-line vote, privacy regulations designed to benefit one group of favored companies over another group of disfavored companies," Pai, appointed as chairman by President Trump, said in a statement. "Appropriately, Congress has passed a resolution to reject this approach of picking winners and losers before it takes effect."

Public advocacy groups that support consumer rights and privacy online strongly criticized the vote.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of the oldest nonprofits advocating for digital rights, said the removal of the rules would erase privacy protections and harm cybersecurity.

"Big Internet providers will be given new powers to harvest your personal information in extraordinarily creepy ways," the EFF wrote in a statement. "They will watch your every action online and create highly personalized and sensitive profiles for the highest bidder. All without your consent."

"Gutting these privacy rules won’t just allow Internet Service Providers to spy on us and sell our personal information, it will also enable more unconstitutional mass government surveillance, and fundamentally undermine our cybersecurity by making our sensitive personal information vulnerable to hackers, identity thieves, and foreign governments," Evan Greer, campaign director of Fight for the Future, noted.

For the pro-business think tank the Competitive Enterprise Institute, however, the vote marked an important removal of unneeded regulations.

"Not every hypothetical scenario involving unseemly corporate conduct justifies a federal regulatory response," research fellow Ryan Radia said in a statement. "We know that firms generally must compete to attract and retain customers, and the same holds true in the market for Internet service, despite increasing regulatory barriers."

The leading trade group for major telecommunications companies, US Telecom, said consumers could look to the Federal Trade Commission for privacy protection.

Congressional action to block the FCC rules "would simply maintain the status quo on privacy protections by removing the misguided rules adopted last year," Jonathan Spalter, the group's CEO, said in a statement. "We continue to support the FTC privacy framework and look forward to working on a more uniform air-tight approach to privacy that doesn’t advance a balkanized regulatory structure."

AT&T declined to comment and referred to the US Telecom statement.

Verizon said it had committed to an industry-created set of privacy protection principles. "Verizon is fully committed to the privacy of its customers," the company said in a statement. "Any elimination of the FCC privacy rules will not change that commitment. We have a long history of protecting the privacy and security of customer information and providing customers with choices."

Comcast and Charter did not respond to requests for comment.

Analysts said the Internet service providers stated objections did not make sense. The industry complained that the rules imposed a double standard because they didn't apply to online sites like Facebook (fb) and Google (googl).

"The argument posited by the ISPs -- that the rules would provide internet giants like Google and Facebook an unfair business advantage -- never held water," Forrester analyst Fatemeh Khatibloo wrote on Wednesday. "The 'giants' don't really see the nitty-gritty of our web browsing habits, and they don't have access to our physical location data -- so long as we turn off location tracking."

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