House votes to scrap Americans' broadband privacy rights

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AT&T and Comcast's right to build giant dossiers on their customers will be protected instead

Last week, the Senate voted to ditch consumers' privacy rights on the internet, and yesterday the House did likewise, voting to repeal broadband privacy rules issued by the Federal Communications Commission in the final months of the Obama Administration.

The measure now goes to President Trump, who is expected to sign it without undue deliberation.

"The vote in Congress to repeal the broadband privacy rules, allowing internet service providers to spy on their customers and sell their data without consent, is a terrible setback for the American public," said Susan Grant of the Consumer Federation of America. "It does provide an opportunity for President Trump, however. He can show that he is on the side of the people by vetoing this measure."

The FCC rules prohibit broadband providers like AT&T and Comcast from following consumers around on the internet, recording their every action, and building huge databases that are sold to marketers and others.

Protect carriers' rights

Advertising interests have been relentless in their insistence that the Trump Administration and Congress unleash the surveillance powers of the broadband carriers, saying that protecting consumers' privacy rights will stymie innovation. 

"Without prompt action in Congress or at the FCC, the FCC's regulations would break with well-accepted and functioning industry practices, chilling innovation and hurting the consumers the regulation was supposed to protect," wrote The American Association of Advertising Agencies (the 4A's) and several other advertising trade groups recently. 

"All the public wants is a little respect," Grant said. "Unlike other online companies, our internet service providers can see our every move online, including the websites we visit and what we do there, the apps we use, and the locations from which we connect. With this information they can build detailed digital dossiers about us."

Grant said consumers aren't asking for an outright ban on such surveillance.

"We simply want them to get our approval before they can sell this information to the highest bidder. In crafting the broadband privacy rules, the FCC appropriately said that for our most sensitive information, consent should be on an opt-in basis. This is nothing new or radical."

Grant noted that many Americans don't have a choice of internet providers and thus face an unfair, take-it-or-leave-it situation. 

Nothing lost?

Some in the Congress, like Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) have argued that the repeal of the broadband privacy rules will not leave Americans with less privacy protection than they have now, but Grant said this misses the point entirely. "With few exceptions, Americans have no right to say 'don’t sell my data,'" she said.

Flake said the repeal was "the first step toward restoring the FTC's light-touch, consumer-friendly approach. It will not change or lessen existing consumer privacy protections." Critics noted that Flake's statement was true only insofar as the tougher FCC rules protecting consumers have not yet gone into effect. 

Others in Congress claimed that other agencies already police privacy. Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas) argued that the FTC already has jurisdiction over privacy. "Two cops on the beat create confusion," he said.

Flores is incorrect, however. A federal appellate court ruled recently that the FTC lacks jurisdiction to bring enforcement actions against broadband providers.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said broadband carriers should be regulated because of their ability to track every action Americans take online. 

"Broadband providers know deeply personal information about us and our families," Pelosi said on the House floor. "They can even track us when we're surfing in private browsing mode. Americans' private browser history should not be up for sale."

She added: "If the Republicans are allowed to do this, we have surrendered all thoughts of privacy for the American people."

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