Some of the nation's biggest Internet providers are asking the government to roll back a landmark set of privacy regulations it approved last fall — kicking off an effort by the industry and its allies to dismantle key Internet policies of the Obama years.
In a petition filed to federal regulators Monday, a top Washington trade group whose members include Comcast, Charter and Cox argued that the rules should be thrown out.
“They are unnecessary, unjustified, unmoored from a cost-benefit assessment, and unlikely to advance the Commission’s stated goal of enhancing consumer privacy,” wrote the Internet & Television Association, known as NCTA.
The petition joins a bevy of others from groups representing telecom companies, wireless carriers, tech companies and advertisers.
The rules, which passed by a 3-to-2 partisan vote favoring Democrats at the Federal Communications Commission in October, are meant to keep Internet providers such as Comcast, Verizon and others from abusing the behavioral data they collect on customers as they regularly use the Internet.
Information such as your Web browsing history, your geolocation logs and even the content of your emails offer service providers a rich source of potential advertising revenue. That data, along with your health and financial information, can also be sold to marketers and data brokers interested in building a profile of you as a consumer. The FCC's rules restricted Internet providers' ability to use and share this information, in what privacy advocates hailed as a historic victory.
But now the fate of those regulations lies in question as Republicans prepare to take control of the nation's top telecom watchdog. Consumer advocacy groups vowed Wednesday to oppose the cable industry's petition.
“Nothing in this election changed Americans' fundamental rights, or their need for privacy,” said Matt Wood, policy director for Free Press, an advocacy organization. “The election only gave more power to the party that would seemingly rather side with Comcast and other cable lobbyists than with their own constituents.”
Opponents of the rules point out that the FCC's regulation created an imbalance in the law: While Internet providers must (for now) obey the restrictions, nothing forces Web companies such as Google and Facebook to do the same. For the past three years, the FCC under Democratic leadership has repeatedly vowed not to regulate Web companies, giving rise to complaints by telecom and cable lobbyists that the FCC was biased in their favor.
At the same time, defenders of the FCC's privacy rules argue that Internet providers are uniquely positioned to see everything a customer does with his or her connection — unlike services such as Facebook, whose understanding of user behavior is generally limited to the boundaries of its own platform.
Politically, the industry petition comes at a significant time. It was filed days after the departure of one Democratic commissioner, Jessica Rosenworcel, and just weeks before the agency's most senior Democrat, Tom Wheeler, is due to step down. Both moves will leave the FCC with a two-Republican majority and a one-Democrat minority, allowing the GOP to begin repealing regulations almost as soon as President-elect Donald Trump is sworn into the Oval Office.
Republicans at the FCC were already anticipating the opportunity last month.
“We need to fire up the weed whacker and remove those rules that are holding back investment, innovation and job creation,” said Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai in a December speech to a conservative think tank.
Correction: An earlier version of this post said the FCC has 90 days to consider the petition. In fact, there is no time limit.