Wolverton: Senate Republicans vote to undermine online privacy

Wolverton: Senate Republicans vote to undermine online privacy

Senate Republicans showed Thursday they don’t care about your online privacy.

It remains to be seen whether their colleagues in the House of Representatives and President Donald Trump feel the same way.

On a party-line vote, the Senate on Thursday voted to strike down online privacy protections the Federal Communications Commission established last year. The rules, which were largely set to take effect later this year, would require broadband providers like Comcast and AT&T to seek customer approval before collecting certain data on their online activities and would require them to take “reasonable” measures to protect the data they collect.

Without those protections, broadband providers could collect just about any data they want on their customers’ online activities without having to inform the customers, much less seek their permission before they did so.

“Senate Republicans just struck a massive blow against everyone who uses the internet,” said Gaurav Laroia, a policy counsel for Free Press Action Fund, a consumer advocacy group that championed the privacy protections. Senate Republicans, Laroia added, sided with broadband providers “to take away the privacy rights of hundreds of millions of Americans.”

Responding in Orwellian fashion, Jeff Flake, the Arizona Republican who sponsored Senate resolution, argued the move was actually good for consumers.

“Passing my resolution is the first step toward restoring a consumer-friendly approach to internet privacy regulation that empowers consumers to make informed choices on if and how their data can be shared,” Flake said in a statement. “It will not change or lessen existing consumer privacy protections.”

In other news, Flake said that up was down and the sky was green.

The Senate’s action came in the form of a resolution under the Congressional Review Act, an obscure law passed in the 1990s that allows Congress to repeal rules issued by federal agencies in the waning days of a presidential administration. The FCC adopted its privacy rules in late October. Unlike most actions in the Senate, CRA resolutions can’t be filibustered.

A related resolution is awaiting a vote in the House. Assuming the House passes its measure — a likely bet, given Republican control there too — the resolution would require Trump’s signature before taking effect.

The FCC pushed through its privacy rules in order to fulfill a legislative mandate. Federal communications law requires telecommunications companies to protect customers’ private data and seek approval before using it, but leaves it up to the FCC to define what actually counts as private information. The rules did just that, explicitly defining private information to include things like users’ locations, their browsing history, their financial and health information and the what they actually say inside the body of their emails and texts.

But the rules were also essentially a recognition that broadband companies pose a particularly acute threat to consumer privacy. Broadband companies get to see everything you do online when you are connected to their services, not just what you do in a particular web browser or on certain websites or apps.

That information is extraordinarily valuable to marketers — and potentially dangerous to consumers, noted Laroia. Data on your online activities can be used to infer whether you have a particular health condition and what your finances are like and could be used to discriminate against you when it comes to applying for a job, trying to buy a house or getting credit, he said.

Consumer advocates noted that the broadband industry and its advocates have made sizable contributions to Flake and other lawmakers.

“Today, 50 members of the U.S. Senate voted to sell their constituents most personal information to the highest bidder,” said Evan Greer, campaign director at Fight For the Future, an internet advocacy group.

Republicans have argued that the rules were unfair to broadband providers and confusing to consumers, because they didn’t cover Google, Facebook and other web-based companies. They’ve also argued that privacy protections should remain the job of the Federal Trade Commission.

But such arguments are disingenuous and misleading.

The amount of data that Google, Facebook and other companies collect is certainly a concern, but the FCC has no authority over such companies, so it can’t do anything about their privacy practices. Similarly, the FTC by law has no power to regulate Comcast, AT&T or other broadband providers.

That could leave a big hole in privacy protection if the bill passes. That’s because Congressional review resolutions do more than simply block new rules. Their passage bars the agency that issued the rules from reinstating them or putting in place new rules that are substantially similar to the ones that were blocked. In other words, if the resolution on the FCC’s privacy rules takes effect, the commission will not be allowed to issue any more rules to protect broadband users’ private information unless Congress gives the agency that authority via a new law.

That would leave broadband companies pretty much free to do as they wish with consumers data.

The resolution “creates a massive gap in consumer protection law,” FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn and FTC Commissioner Terrell McSweeny, both Democrats, said in a joint statement. “This is the antithesis of putting #ConsumersFirst.”

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Published at Thu, 23 Mar 2017 23:19:48 +0000