A new GOP House bill is putting internet privacy back in the spotlight, just weeks after President Trump signed legislation killing privacy protections passed during the Obama administration.
The new bill, from Rep. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnSenator asks Facebook's Zuckerberg to testify at hearing on kids' safety TikTok, YouTube, Snapchat executives to testify at Senate hearing on kids' safety Buttigieg hits back after parental leave criticism: 'Really strange' MORE (R-Tenn.), comes after Republicans were left reeling from a public backlash after pushing through legislation to kill internet privacy protections passed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last year.
Blackburn was a key part of moving that legislation and took heat at the time for her arguments against the rules, which would have gone into effect this year and were seen by many as essential privacy protections.
The FCC rules would have required internet service providers (ISPs) to get permission from customers before sharing their data with advertisers. Republicans and the broadband industry opposed the regulations, arguing that they would have subjected ISPs to restrictions not faced by websites such as Facebook and Google, which are responsible for the majority of the internet’s data-driven advertisements.
When the bill repealing those regulations was signed into law, Republicans faced intense criticism from Democrats and privacy and consumer advocates. And the telecom industry went on the defensive, trying to publicly push back against the notion that their customers’ data is now vulnerable to being accessed by third parties.
Critics at the time were skeptical of Republicans’ pledge to implement uniform privacy regulations that cover both ISPs and such sites as Facebook, Google and Amazon, which are also referred to as “edge services.”
The Blackburn bill, which was introduced last week, seems to be an answer to those critics.
It would require both edge services and ISPs to get users’ permission before sharing their sensitive information — things like financial data, browsing history and geolocation information — with advertisers.
But it’s still too early to know how much traction the bill has.
The Internet Association, a trade group representing Silicon Valley giants such as Facebook, Twitter and Google, has already signaled its opposition to the bill.
“This bill has the potential to upend the consumer experience online and stifle innovation,” Internet Association spokesman Noah Theran said in a statement. “Policymakers must recognize that websites and apps continue to be under strict [Federal Trade Commission] privacy enforcement and are not in an enforcement gap, unlike other stakeholders in the ecosystem.”
Blackburn shot back in her own statement Wednesday, echoing a refrain that was used by privacy advocates arguing against the GOP effort to overturn the FCC rules.
"I thought the Internet Association would be more supportive of protecting consumers,” Blackburn said. “I think if you ask the American people if they're OK with having less control over their online privacy so companies can sell their data — they'd say no."
Blackburn was scheduled to meet with the group on Thursday.
The legislation has yet to garner much support with the broadband industry, which is often at odds with edge services on policy issues. When the FCC rules were killed, groups like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon said they should be governed by the same set of privacy restrictions, and overseen by the same agency, as edge providers.
Conservatives and industry advocates prefer to see the FTC in charge of policing internet privacy, because it has a lighter regulatory footprint than agencies — like the FCC — that have rulemaking authority.
Blackburn’s bill would grant that wish, and opposing it could put the telecom industry in an awkward position, but so far, AT&T seems to be the only ISP to back the legislation.
"We have always said consumers expect their online data to be protected by a comprehensive and uniform privacy framework that applies across the entire Internet ecosystem and includes operating systems, browsers, devices, ISPs, apps, online services, and advertising networks,” AT&T spokesman Michael Balmoris said.
“We support Chairwoman Blackburn for moving the discussion in that direction and we look forward to working with her as this legislation moves forward."