GOP sets sights on internet privacy rules

GOP sets sights on internet privacy rules

Republicans in Congress are setting their sights on killing the Federal Communications Commission's landmark internet privacy rules, the next target in their push to roll back Obama-era regulations.

The rules require broadband service providers to obtain permission from consumers before using certain personal information for marketing purposes.

The FCC passed the rules using its authority under the 2015 net neutrality rules, which said internet providers must treat all web traffic the same.

Sen. Jeff FlakeJeff FlakeTrudeau, Trump speak for second night about US-Canada trade Trump says he may break up 9th Circuit Court after rulings go against him Trump administration weighing order to withdraw from NAFTA MORE (R-Ariz.) this week said he is planning to introduce a resolution to undo the privacy rules, arguing that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) should have jurisdiction over privacy issues and not the FCC.

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“The FCC’s midnight regulation does nothing to protect consumer privacy,” Flake said in a statement to The Hill. “It is unnecessary, confusing and adds yet another innovation-stifling regulation to the internet. My legislation is the first step toward restoring the FTC’s light-touch, consumer-friendly approach.

“It will not change or lessen existing consumer privacy protections. It empowers consumers to make informed choices on if and how their data can be shared. It has strong and growing support in both the Senate and the House, and I look forward to introducing it soon," he added.

Republicans have a powerful tool to roll back the privacy rules: the Congressional Review Act (CRA). Under the law, lawmakers can revoke a regulation finalized with 60 legislative session days. Resolutions like Flake's under the CRA only need a simple majority to pass both chambers and the president's signature.

The law has only been used three times in the last two decades to reverse a regulation, twice in the past week under President Trump.

With Trump in the White House and control of both chambers, Republicans, though, are turning to the CRA to target a number of Obama rules.

Flake's effort also has the support of the telecom industry. A coalition of trade associations and free market groups urged Congressional leaders in a January letter to use the Congressional Review Act to target the privacy rules. The groups said the rules will not be effective and said the FCC lacked the authority to impose them.

“Congress is fully justified in rescinding these rules both because the Order lacks proper legal grounding and because of the need to ensure real consumer privacy across contexts of user experience,” the groups wrote.

But despite the industry support, the fate of Flake's effort is still unclear.

The Arizona senator will need the backing of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellStudy: Trump tops recent GOP presidents in signing bills in first 100 days Senate passes stopgap funding bill to avert shutdown Let’s never talk about a government shutdown — ever again MORE to move forward. McConnell’s office declined to comment.

But Flake reportedly has 12 co-sponsors for his bill. And so far, no Republicans have publicly opposed his effort. If Republicans stay united, Democrats could be powerless to stop them from rolling the rules back.

Many Senate Democrats, though, also believe that Republicans would be waging an unpopular fight in the public eye.

They believe consumers have been rattled by the growing number of massive hacks and the troves of data companies now collect. And any attempt to roll back privacy rules could put Republicans under fire from consumer groups and civil libertarians, who strongly backed the FCC's rule.

Senate Democrats this week vowed to try to save their rules and take their fight to the public.

“Big broadband companies want to mine and sell consumers’ most sensitive personal information without any consent,” Sen. Ed MarkeyEd MarkeySanders calls for renewed focus on fighting climate change Overnight Energy: Trump set to sign offshore drilling order Sanders: Trump couldn't be 'more wrong' on climate MORE (D-Mass.), a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, said in a statement on Thursday. “Overturning broadband privacy protections is nothing more than Big Broadband’s way of pumping up its profits and undermining consumer rights.

"Without the FCC’s broadband privacy rule, broadband providers will be able to sell dossiers of the personal and professional lives of their subscribers to the highest bidder without their consent,” he added.

In the House as well, leading Democrats say it’s a fight they can win with the public.

“American consumers have a clear expectation to have the final say on when and how their financial, medical, and other personal information is being shared,” House Commerce Committee Ranking Member Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) said in a statement to The Hill.

The GOP, though, also has a powerful ally in new Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. Pai is in sync with Republicans who are looking to potentially roll back the separate net neutrality rules and was also a vocal opponent of the privacy rules when they were approved in October. At the time, he called them "one-sided rules that will cement edge providers’ dominance in the online advertising market and lead to consumer confusion about which online companies can and cannot use their data."

With Republicans in control of the agency, Pai could push through a repeal of the privacy rules. But critics say a future Democratic administration could just reinstate them.

That means the fight will likely play out in Congress. And both sides are now digging in.

"I am prepared to fight any actions that would harm consumers and strip control of their privacy and security," said Pallone.