For sale: Your private browsing history

For sale: Your private browsing history
Congress passes bill allowing ISPs to sell customer Web surfing data.
Mar 28 2017

The House of Representatives voted today to eliminate ISP privacy rules, following the Senate vote to take the same action last week. The legislation to kill the rules now heads to President Donald Trump for his signature or veto.

The White House issued a statement today supporting the House’s action, and saying that Trump’s advisors will recommend that he sign the legislation. That would make the death of the Federal Communications Commission’s privacy rules official.

The rules issued by the FCC last year would have required ISPs to get consumers’ opt-in consent before selling or sharing Web browsing history, app usage history, and other private information with advertisers and other companies. But lawmakers used their authority under the Congressional Review Act (CRA) to pass a joint resolution ensuring that the rules “shall have no force or effect” and that the FCC cannot issue similar regulations in the future.

CRA resolutions require the president’s signature, and several Republican attempts to undo Obama administration regulations were vetoed by President Obama. But with both Congress and the White House now in Republican hands, Trump yesterday signed four resolutions to remove recently issued regulations.

Republicans argue that the Federal Trade Commission should regulate ISPs’ privacy practices instead of the FCC. But the resolution passed today eliminates the FCC’s privacy rules without any immediate action to return jurisdiction to the FTC, which is prohibited from regulating common carriers such as ISPs and phone companies.

If Trump signs the resolution to eliminate privacy rules, ISPs won’t have to seek customer approval before sharing their browsing histories and other private information with advertisers.

The House vote was 215 to 205, with most Republicans voting to eliminate privacy rules. The Senate vote last week was 50-48, with lawmakers voting entirely along party lines.

“What the heck are you thinking?”

“I have a simple question: what the heck are you thinking?” Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) said in debate on the House floor. “What is in your mind? Why would you want to give up any of your personal information to a faceless corporation for the sole purpose of them selling it? Give me one good reason why Comcast should know my mother’s medical problems.”

Capuano said that ISPs can discover customers’ medical conditions by seeing what illnesses and drugs they search for on the Internet.

“Just last week I bought underwear on the Internet. Why should you know what size I take or the color?” Capuano said. ISPs could take that information and sell it to underwear companies who might show him advertisements, he said.

“These companies are not going broke. The Internet is not in jeopardy,” Capuano said. “It’s none of their information, it’s none of their business.”

Capuano challenged Republicans to “leave Capitol Hill for five minutes” and “find three people on the street” who want ISPs collecting and selling their browsing histories.

“Private browsing history should not be up for sale.”

Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Penn.) said that “no company will even put its name behind this effort,” instead relying on lobbyists. “Lobbyists make the bogus claim that having actual protections will confuse consumers, and that the only way to clear up this confusion is to have no rules at all,” he said.

No consumers have supported getting rid of the privacy rules, Doyle said. The rules are not strict, since they don’t prevent ISPs from tracking customers and serving up personalized advertising as long as they ask customers for consent first, he said. ISPs would simply have to “ask permission, protect people’s data, and tell them if it gets stolen,” he said.

While Republicans claim the rules would confuse customers, no actual consumers have come forward to say they’re confused by the FCC’s rules, said Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.).



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