Senate quashes an Obama-era regulation to protect your privacy online

Elbert EdwardsMar 24, 2017

The U.S. Senate on Thursday voted to block regulations by the Federal Communications Commission that prohibited Internet service providers from collecting and selling customers' web usage data.

Senate Republicans on Thursday voted along party lines to gut the FCC's broadband privacy regulations. It remains to be seen whether their colleagues in the House of Representatives and Donald Trump feel the same way.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the Senate was overturning a regulation that "makes the internet an uneven playing field, increases complexity, discourages competition, innovation, and infrastructure investment". The carriers said they will allow subscribers to opt out of the use of "non-sensitive" Web-surfing data for ad targeting purposes, and obtain people's opt-in consent before drawing on a limited category of "sensitive" data, including precise geolocation information, financial account numbers and some types of health data. However, it doesn't come as a surprise since the new FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has remained outspoken against these rules since the beginning.

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

NCTA - the Internet & Television Assn., a trade group that includes cable companies, praised the Senate vote and said it would not harm consumer privacy.

"Fifty Senators voted to erase broadband customers' right to choose whether their internet service providers (ISPs) can sell their personal information, including every website they visit", said Center for Democracy and Technology policy analyst Natasha Duarte. "Even worse, doing so through the Congressional Review Act prevents the FCC from ever proposing "substantially similar" rules again". "We hope they recognize the importance of consumer privacy and not undermine the ability of Americans to exercise control over their sensitive data". The FCC declined to comment on the Senate vote.

"By passing the CRA resolution striking down the FCC's October privacy surprise, the Senate took a first step toward restoring a balanced privacy framework across the Internet", said High Tech Forum founder Richard Bennett.

"The FCC privacy rules are just another example of burdensome rules that hurt more than they help", said Sen.

Its president, Grover Norquist, argued that while "Americans value their privacy", the FCC rules "use our highly valued privacy as a tool to empower agency regulatory expansion at the expense of consumers".

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. While Internet users can choose between numerous online services for search, email, and more - including services that feature built-in privacy protections as a selling point - most consumers have few if any options when it comes to choosing an ISP. Instead, they put in place one set of requirements for data when it touches Internet providers, and a different set of requirements for the very same data when it touches other applications, websites and IoT devices. "Moreover, they have released a voluntary set of ISP Privacy Principles that cover transparency, consumer choice, data security and data breach notification and are consistent with the FTC's long-standing framework".

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