Now that Republicans in Congress and President Donald Trump have successfully killed stringent new online privacy rules, public interest groups sense they may have a potent campaign issue to use in upcoming elections.
Trump signed the anti-privacy legislation on Monday that had been approved on party-line votes in both houses of Congress last month with only Republican support. The bill cancels rules adopted by the Federal Communications Commission last fall, which would have required Internet service providers to get permission from customers before sharing personal information they collect like web browsing histories and app usage. The rules hadn’t gone into effect yet.
Almost immediately after news of Trump’s approval spread, privacy advocacy groups promised to make the fight political. Nonprofit Fight For the Future, which has helped organize campaigns in favor of net neutrality rules and other cyber rights battles, said it would put up billboards in some lawmakers’ districts blasting the politicians for their votes.
“Donald Trump said he was going to drain the swamp, but it didn’t take long for the swamp to drain him,” Evan Greer, campaign director of the group said in a statement. “The only people in the United States who want less Internet privacy are CEOs and lobbyists for giant telecom companies who want to rake in money by spying on all of us and selling the private details of our lives to marketing companies.”
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The National Hispanic Media Coalition, which had also opposed repealing the rules, wasn’t as specific. But the Coalition said it would “not soon forget” the repeal action by Trump and would continue the fight.
Still, there is not much precedent for such a technology and Internet-oriented issue becoming decisive in a campaign for national political office. Fight the Future and other digital civil liberties groups have typically targeted specific legislation, such as the 2011 Stop Online Piracy Act, and generated publicity campaigns to convince lawmakers en masse to dump the proposals.
The move to bring the online privacy issue into specific campaigns comes after the groups unsuccessfully tried in advance to convince Republican lawmakers not to revoke the rules. The move to hit specific lawmakers risks further alienating those politicians in future debates over Internet-related civil liberties.
And lobbying groups for telecommunications and cable firms that opposed the rules could also come into the fight to defend the lawmakers. The Internet Innovation Alliance, a nonprofit backed by AT&T (T), Alcatel Lucent, and other industry groups, came out in favor of the repeal on Tuesday.
“We are pleased that today’s action eliminates the FCC’s rules that would have provided varying degrees of data protection based solely on what type of internet company accesses your data,” the group said in a statement. “We look forward to working with both the FCC and FTC to ensure the nation’s consumers will soon benefit from a consistent broadband privacy framework that protects data and continues to promote internet innovation.”
The FCC enacted the online privacy rules last year under Obama-appointed chairman Tom Wheeler. The move followed a summer appeals court ruling that exempted major ISPs like Comcast’s (CMCSA) Xfinity, Charter Communications’ (CHTR) Spectrum, and Verizon’s (VZ) FiOS from oversight by the Federal Trade Commission, the traditional enforcer of consumer online privacy protection. Web sites and social networks like Google (GOOGL) and Facebook (FB) were still subject to FTC authority.
The then-new FCC rules—requiring advance permission from consumers before data sharing was allowed—went beyond what the FTC typically required and outraged the ISP industry, which turned to its allies in Congress for a fix after the election.