US Senate resolution aims to roll back privacy rules for ISPs

The rules were approved by the Federal Communications Commission in October

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A resolution introduced in the U.S. Senate on Tuesday aims to roll back privacy rules for broadband service providers that were approved by the Federal Communications Commission in October.

The rules include the requirement that internet service providers like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon should obtain "opt-in" consent from consumers to use and share sensitive personal information such as geolocation and web browsing history, and also give customers the option to opt out from the sharing of non-sensitive information such as email addresses or service tier information.

The rules have been opposed by internet service providers who argue that they are being treated differently from other Internet entities like search engines and social networking companies.

The providers secured a win last week when the now Republican-dominated FCC decided that the operation of the data security provisions would be temporarily halted in view of a stay petition by providers. The data protection rules were to come into force last Thursday.

The new resolution introduced by Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, is backed by over 20 Republican co-sponsors.

It aims to provide for congressional disapproval of the FCC rule relating to ‘‘Protecting the Privacy of Customers of Broadband and Other Telecommunications Services’’ under the Congressional Review Act, a 1996 law that empowers Congress to repeal federal regulations, according to a statement issued by Flake, who is also chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law. The resolution under the CRA would also prevent the FCC from issuing "similarly harmful regulations" in the future, it added.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who on Tuesday was nominated for a second term five-year term at the agency by President Donald Trump, favors uniform rules on privacy for Internet companies, with the Federal Trade Commission rather than the FCC setting those rules. His renomination requires Senate confirmation.

“The federal government shouldn’t favor one set of companies over another—and certainly not when it comes to a marketplace as dynamic as the internet,” Pai said in a joint statement last week with FTC Acting Chairman Maureen K. Ohlhausen.

In an op-ed this month, Flake wrote that by reclassifying in 2015 internet service providers as common carriers, subject to Title II of the Communications Act, the FCC had stripped the FTC of its jurisdiction over the privacy practices of ISPs. The reclassification of broadband as a public regulated utility was part of a move by the previous administration of President Barack Obama to preserve net neutrality in the country.

The FTC has no real regulatory power to protect the privacy of Americans once they turn 13 and are no longer covered by a 1998 children’s privacy law, said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy in Washington, in an emailed statement.

The Flake resolution has been opposed by civil rights groups as well as Democrats in Congress. Electronic Frontier Foundation has called on people to call up their senators and their representatives to tell them to oppose the use of the CRA to roll back the FCC’s new rules about ISP privacy practices.

The use of the CRA would allow Congress to overturn the privacy rules with just a majority vote in both chambers, without the opportunity for members to filibuster, said the American Civil Liberties Union. It would also ban the FCC from issuing rules that are “substantially the same,” raising “serious questions about the FCC’s ability to protect consumer’s online privacy in the future,” wrote Nathaniel Turner, lobbyist assistant at ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office.

"The Republican leadership—working on behalf of the nation’s largest cable and phone companies—wants to strip Americans of important protections on how their most sensitive information can be used," Chester said. He warned that the leading broadband ISPs have developed “Big Data collection practices" that gather and analyze personal information when people are on PC’s, mobile devices and increasingly even while viewing TV.

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John Ribeiro

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