GOP faces backlash over attack on internet privacy rules

Greg Nash

Congressional Republicans are facing widespread outrage after advancing a bill that will overturn privacy protections for internet users.

The bill narrowly passed the Senate by two votes and the House by 10. Now it heads to the White House, where President Trump is expected to sign it.

The measure blocks rules passed by the Federal Communications Commission during the Obama administration that restrict what internet service providers can do with their customers’ data. Those companies would be required to get consumers’ express permission before using or sharing “sensitive” data for advertising.

The rule’s definition of sensitive data includes users’ browsing history, app usage and financial and medical information.

The rules themselves passed with relatively little fanfare in October under Democratic FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, but the GOP effort to block them from going into effect has unleashed a flood of outrage.

{mosads}“Late Show” host Stephen Colbert lashed out at Republicans on Wednesday night, calling Rep. Marsha Blackburn’s (R-Tenn.) defense of the bill “bullshit.”

“I guarantee you there is not one person, not one voter of any political stripe anywhere in America who asked for this,” Colbert said in his opening monologue. “No one in America stood up in a town hall and said, ‘Sir, I demand you let somebody else make money off my shameful desires. Maybe blackmail me someday.’”

An advocacy group called Fight for the Future pledged to put up billboards in Washington, D.C., and certain districts targeting Republicans who voted for the bill.

And two separate fundraising campaigns have amassed a combined $250,000 to purchase the browsing history of Republican lawmakers who backed the bill, although service providers do not actually sell specific individuals’ browsing history.

“I think the fervor over this is not going to die down anytime soon,” said Gigi Sohn, who helped craft the rules when she was an adviser to Wheeler.

“I think it’s going to become an election an issue,” Sohn said. “This is something everybody can understand.”

Democratic officials seem to agree. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has already launched robocalls in the congressional districts of vulnerable Republicans who voted for the measure.

“Representative [Martha] McSally just voted to allow internet providers, like Comcast and Verizon, to sell your sensitive personal information to other companies — all without your consent,” a script of a robocall targeting Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) reads. “Thanks to House Republicans, your internet browsing history, personal health and financial information, and even location, can be sold to the highest bidder.”

The privacy rules came about as a result of a court ruling about the Federal Trade Commission’s regulatory powers.

Until a couple of years ago, the FTC was the top regulator in charge of internet privacy, but a court ruled last year that the agency had no jurisdiction over internet service providers, which the FCC had reclassified as telecommunications services rather than information services under 2015 net neutrality rules.

The reclassification meant that the FCC suddenly had the authority to impose regulations on service providers, a power it used to impose the privacy rules.

Republicans and industry advocates who oppose the regulations argue that they place unfair restrictions on internet service providers even as web companies like Facebook and Google are allowed to use consumer data for advertising.

“The FCC didn’t embrace a technology-neutral framework for privacy,” said Jon Leibowitz, co-chair of the industry group 21st Century Privacy Coalition, in a call with reporters ahead of the House vote on Tuesday.

“It instead set out an overbroad definition of sensitive data that doesn’t apply to non-ISP’s collecting as much or more personal data online. And as we all know, privacy shouldn’t be about who collects information, it should be about what information is collected and how it is used.”

Leibowitz dismissed negative coverage of the GOP’s efforts as “fake news.”

Critics of the regulations also argue that the backlash has been overblown because the rules never went into effect, meaning that the vote to eliminate them effectively doesn’t change anything.

But that has proven to be a hard sell to consumers.

Some Republicans appeared to have realized the political baggage that comes with being seen as anti-privacy. Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.), who has become a Democratic target after Hillary Clinton won his district in the presidential election, was one of 15 House Republicans who voted against the bill.

“In the 21st Century, Americans deeply value their privacy when it comes to digital content,” Yoder said in a statement Tuesday. “We don’t want the government having access to our information without our consent, and the same goes for private business.”

“These digital privacy protections put in place by the FCC are commonsense measures similar to long-standing rules that apply to phone companies that will simply ensure internet users can continue to have control over their personal information.”

Tags Hillary Clinton Kevin Yoder Marsha Blackburn
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