House Republicans voted Tuesday to repeal a set of landmark privacy protections for Web users, in a sharp pivot away from the Internet policies of the Obama administration. President Trump is expected to sign the measure.
Tuesday's vote is likely to lend momentum to a broader rollback of Obama-era policies, particularly in the technology sector. And it empowers Internet providers to enter the $83 billion market for online advertising, where the ability to collect, store, share and sell consumers' behavioral information is directly linked to companies' bottom line. Proponents of the repeal argue the regulations stifle innovation by forcing Internet providers to abide by unreasonably strict guidelines. But defenders of the privacy rules say they are the only thing preventing broadband companies from spying on their customers and selling that data to the highest bidder.
Broadband companies such as Verizon and Comcast are racing to develop ways to mine and analyze customer information — such as their browsing habits, app usage history, location information and more. The FCC's rules, which were passed in October in what was billed as a rare victory for privacy advocates, had set limits on how Internet providers could use that information, seeking to give consumers more control over the data they generate as they traverse the Web on their smartphones and computers. They were scheduled to go into effect in December 2017.
The new legislative measure would effectively allow providers to access and use a wide range of customer data without seeking their users' explicit consent, much as Google and Facebook do now. It also releases Internet providers from obligations to increase protections of customer information against hackers and thieves. And it prohibits the nation's top telecom regulator, the Federal Communications Commission, from seeking to restore its privacy regulations in the future.
Many broadband companies say those rules are unnecessary because they already offer detailed privacy policies and take steps to defend their businesses from online attack. Industry groups said Tuesday that narrower definitions of privacy from other federal agencies are sufficient to protect consumers, but declined to say whether they would support beefing up those measures.
Have questions? Read on for answers.
What is the House voting on, exactly?
Technically known as “a joint resolution of congressional disapproval,” the House voted on a measure that would repeal what policy experts refer to as simply the FCC's broadband privacy rules. The measure will now go to the White House.
What are these rules Republicans are trying to repeal?
The broadband privacy rules do several things.
1) They require Internet providers to be transparent about how they handle your data, such as the sites you visit and your Social Security number. Providers have to disclose what they collect about users, as well as how and why they use that data. They also must make public who else might see that data as a result of any sharing or selling agreements.
2) The rules specify the conditions under which Internet providers may use certain types of data. Under the rules, Internet providers must get your explicit permission to share or sell things such as your geolocation information, your health information, your children's information, your financial information, your Social Security number, your browsing history, your app usage history or the content of your messages, emails and other communications. This means that Internet providers can't place a notification about their practices in fine print and say they got your permission when you clicked “okay” — they must instead offer clear notices to ensure that consumers know what they're agreeing to. Any other types of information that Internet providers share, such as the data plan you've purchased, are considered “nonsensitive” by the FCC; while Internet providers don't need to ask for explicit permission before collecting it, they must allow consumers to opt out of that collection at any time.
3) The FCC rules require Internet providers to meet industry standards on security, protecting user data from theft and fraud.
House voted to repeal the rules. What happens now?
Assuming Trump signs the measure, Internet providers will be freed from those obligations, which would otherwise have taken effect later this year. With this data, Internet providers can sell highly targeted ads, making them rivals to Google and Facebook, analysts say.
Internet providers also will be free to use customer data in other ways, such as selling the information directly to data brokers that target lucrative or vulnerable demographics.
“ISPs like Comcast, AT&T, and Charter will be free to sell your personal information to the highest bidder without your permission — and no one will be able to protect you,” wrote Gigi Sohn, a former FCC staffer who helped draft the privacy rules, in a recent blog post on the Verge.
Selling your data is merely one of the four ways in which Internet providers intend to make money off consumers. The others include selling you access to the Internet, as they have traditionally done; selling access to media content they've acquired by purchasing large entertainment companies; and selling advertising that directly targets you based on the data the provider has collected by watching how you use the Internet and what content you consume.
Could there be benefits to this?
Potentially. AT&T, for instance, used to offer Internet discounts to consumers in exchange for letting the company monitor their browsing history. Such programs could see a return, and be marketed as a way to access cheaper Internet. Industry advocates also argue that data-driven targeting leads to more relevant advertisements.
But overall, repealing the rules gives Internet providers more power over my information?
Don't companies such as Google and Facebook already use my data for advertising?
They do. But much of the debate is over whether Internet providers should enjoy the same privileges. Just because online companies take advantage of your data, consumer groups say, doesn't mean Americans should have to submit to Internet providers (or any other industry) that wants to do the same. And although consumers can generally switch from one search engine or online video service to another, they add, switching Internet providers is much harder — especially when many Americans have only one or two choices of broadband company.
By contrast, GOP lawmakers and industry advocates argue the FCC rules stifle business and innovation. And, they say, companies such as Facebook are already subject to certain privacy guidelines published by the Federal Trade Commission, so it would be better if telecom and cable companies lived under those expectations, not the more expansive definition of privacy approved by the FCC.
“The question is: Why would you have different rules for ISPs in that regard than the rest of the Internet ecosystem?” said Howard Waltzman, general counsel for the 21st Century Privacy Coalition, an industry-aligned advocacy organization.
Can't the FTC go after Internet providers with its rules?
At the moment, not really. The reason has to do with the FCC's rules on net neutrality. When the FCC passed those rules, it branded all Internet providers as “common carriers,” essentially a fancy legal term to describe traditional phone companies.
The problem is that the FTC is bound by something called the “common carrier exemption.” The agency isn't allowed to take action against companies that have been labeled common carriers by the FCC. (The idea behind the exemption is to prevent both agencies from going after the same companies twice for the same infraction.)
So if the House vote succeeds and Trump signs the measure, that releases Internet providers from the FCC's privacy regulation but does not do anything to apply the FTC's own privacy guidelines to the industry. The FCC can still sue companies after they have allegedly violated consumer privacy, industry groups say. So can state attorneys general. But the FCC will be unable to write regulations that preemptively bar privacy violations, meaning that Internet providers will be subject to less oversight as a result of the congressional measure.