A Republican bill that significantly rolls back rules designed to prevent internet providers from selling consumer data has passed both houses of Congress and President Donald Trump is expected to sign it into law.
The bill nullifies an Obama-Era Federal Communications Commission rule called “Protecting the Privacy of Customers of Broadband and Other Telecommunications Services.” That rule, enacted in 2016, extends existing customer privacy requirements to broadband internet and other telecom services. It also requires internet service providers to tell customers about their right to privacy (allowing customers to opt out of programs that would share their confidential data); made it illegal to offer internet services in exchange for the right to sell a customer’s data; and required companies to make other privacy-related disclosures.
The bill represents a shift in how the federal government treats individuals’ online data. Historically, regulations have treated that data as the property of the consumer. If/when this bill passes, it will be viewed more like the property of internet providers. That means broadband companies could sell a customer’s browsing history, location data, and other online activities. The bill has internet freedom advocates up in arms.
“The bill is terrifying, and I don’t mean to sound hyperbolic,” said Devin Glaser, Policy Director of internet advocacy group Upgrade Seattle. “There are a lot of Seattle residents who do not have access to multiple internet service providers, and will be forced to use as their only source of connection a provider who sells their information to the highest bidder.”
Telecom companies claim the F.C.C. rule that the bill would nullify is inconsistent and that prior regulations adequately protected consumers.
“Today’s action is another step to remove unnecessary rules and regulations that handicap economic growth and innovation, and moves the country one step closer to ensuring that consumers’ private information is protected uniformly across the entire internet ecosystem,” Jonathan Spalter, CEO of USTelecom, an organization that represents internet providers and other telecom companies, said in a statement. “Consumers can rest easy today knowing their privacy is protected under existing FCC authority, which requires companies to keep consumers’ data safe.”
Glaser, on the other hand, believes the bill will put consumers at risk, particularly the region’s most vulnerable populations.
“While for the average resident [the bill] means a lack of privacy about consumer choices or perhaps embarrassing browsing history, it’s profoundly damaging for marginalized communities already targeted by the Trump administration,” he said. “Imagine how safe a DREAMer living in Washington state will feel now knowing their online activities are readily available. It’s hard to see how Seattle can be a sanctuary city if we are unable to feel safe checking our personal inboxes.”
He shared that scenario with GeekWire just before news broke that Seattle Mayor Ed Murray plans to sue President Trump over his threatened sanctuary city crackdown. Glaser believes that municipal broadband — internet that’s owned and operated by the city like a public utility — could alleviate some of the privacy concerns raised by the new bill. Publicly owned internet would be more accountable to individual consumers (a.k.a. constituents), he says.
Mayor Murray added “an affirmative commitment to study and potentially implement a municipal broadband system,” to his Comprehensive Master Plan but the city hasn’t set a concrete date or funding plan to implement the service.
We reached out to the mayor’s office for a comment on the federal deregulation bill and will update this story when we hear back.
The White House issued a statement of support for the Republican bill Tuesday.
“The rule departs from the technology-neutral framework for online privacy administered by the Federal Trade Commission,” the administration said in the statement. “This results in rules that apply very different regulatory regimes based on the identity of the online actor.”
Update: Comcast said Friday it would not sell customers’ browsing history.
“We do not sell our broadband customers’ individual web browsing history. We did not do it before the FCC’s rules were adopted, and we have no plans to do so,” Gerard Lewis, Comcast’s chief privacy officer,” told Reuters.