Congress Hands Internet Providers Their Biggest Win Yet, But What Does It Mean For You?

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Ted Goodman Contributor
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The U.S. House of Representatives voted 215 to 205 to repeal privacy regulations, set to take effect later this year, that would have required internet service providers (ISPs) to obtain consent from subscribers before using their secondary data, like browsing history, for advertising.

House Republicans almost unanimously supported the repeal Tuesday night, while Democrats defended the regulations passed during the Obama administration. The rules would have blocked ISPs like Comcast and AT&T from using data it collects on subscribers like their location history, website browsing history and app usage to third-party groups like advertisers, without the affirmative consent of the subscriber.

The Senate voted 50-48 last week to repeal the privacy regulations, meaning that the resolution to nullify the rules will now be sent to President Donald Trump’s desk for signature. The White House said that Trump plans to sign the order. (RELATED: Senate Republicans Eliminate Internet Privacy Rules)

Republican lawmakers and proponents of the repeal argue that the regulations were too strict and singled out broadband providers, while ignoring the rest of the online ecosystem like social media sites.

Their argument is that Facebook and the like would have an unfair competitive advantage when it comes to advertising, because ISPs would have to invest time, money and resources into compliance of a new regulatory regime that wouldn’t apply to others in the industry. FCC argues that ISPs have access to nearly 100 percent of customer data, while sites like Google and Facebook have vastly reduced access.

House Democrats and consumer privacy groups sounded the alarms after the vote Tuesday, asserting that Congress dismantled the online privacy rights of Americans.

“In a move that defies basic concern for consumer choice, the House voted to strip Americans of the strongest online privacy protections to date,” Dallas Harris, a policy fellow at the public interest group Public Knowledge, said after the vote.

Democrats, including former FCC Chairman under President Obama, Tom Wheeler, argue that without the FCC privacy rules, ISPs like AT&T and Charter will be able to sell personal information to the highest bidder.

“Without the FCC’s broadband privacy rules, Americans go from being internet users to marketing data — from people to the product. Congress has sided with ISPs over consumers. Americans won’t forget,” Harris asserts.

Industry trade groups defending the ISPs argue that a misinformation campaign is creating a misplaced backlash against ISPs, while companies like Facebook and Google remain free from the new regulations.

“There’s a lot of information out there that somehow ISPs use the online information differently than other companies in the internet ecosystem or that they even have the ability to see information that others do not,” 21st Century Privacy Coalition General Counsel Howard Waltzman said in a conference call Tuesday morning, arguing that defenders of the regulations have “ginned up” false information regarding ISPs.

“Internet providers [ISPs] will continue to work on innovative new products that follow ‘privacy-by-design’ principles and honor the FTC’s successful consumer protection framework,” the Internet and Television Association said in a statement Tuesday, arguing that ISPs have a proven record of safeguarding consumer privacy.

Republican lawmakers and telecommunications industry groups have also argued that privacy oversight rests with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), not the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

“I want the American people to know that the FCC will work with the FTC to ensure that consumers’ online privacy is protected though a consistent and comprehensive framework,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement after the vote Tuesday.

“In my view, the best way to achieve that result would be to return jurisdiction over broadband providers’ privacy practices to the FTC, with its decades of experience and expertise in this area,” Pai said, which highlights the drastic shift in philosophy from the FCC under President Obama.

Trump appointed Jared Kushner to lead the White House Office of American Innovation Monday, a group that, among other things, will lead efforts to expand broadband service to all Americans.

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