House Republicans showed Tuesday they care as little about your online privacy as their colleagues in the Senate.
Without any Democrats joining them, Congressional Republicans passed a resolution to overturn privacy rules that would would govern what broadband providers can do with and how they handle customers’ personal data. With the Senate having passed the same resolution last week, the measure now moves to the desk of President Donald Trump, who has said he will sign it.
Should he do so, the measure will leave broadband customers without any formal privacy protections. Worse, it will preclude federal regulators from issuing any new ones unless or until Congress passes a privacy law that allows them to do so. Considering that consumer activists have been urging lawmakers to pass an online privacy law for years, that seems a remote prospect at best.
The House vote came despite a last-minute effort by digital rights activists to lobby Congress against the measure. Calls from constituents encouraged 15 Republicans to join with Democrats and vote against the resolution, but it still passed 215-205.
“House Republicans just joined their colleagues in the Senate in violating internet users’ privacy rights,” Craig Aaron, CEO of consumer rights advocacy group Free Press, said in a statement. “Apparently they see no problem with cable and phone companies snooping on your private medical and financial information, your religious activities or your sex life.”
The resolution passed by the House targets rules voted in place last year by the Federal Communications Commission. Those rules define what constitutes personal data, require broadband providers in many cases to get customers’ consent before collecting and sharing that data, and mandates that they use “reasonable” measures to protect it.
Opponents of those rules have argued that they represented a “power grab” by the FCC and were unfair because they didn’t cover web companies like Google and Facebook. They’ve also argued that online privacy should be the sole purview of the Federal Trade Commission, not the FCC.
“Today’s congressional action to repeal the FCC’s misguided rules marks an important step toward restoring consumer privacy protections that apply consistently to all internet companies,” the NCTA, a trade group that broadband providers, said in a statement.
But such arguments are deeply misleading. The FCC has no authority over web companies, so it couldn’t apply its privacy rules to them. Conversely, the FTC has no authority over internet service providers and has no power to make privacy rules of any kind.
Indeed the FTC as a privacy protector is something of a bad joke. Companies regulated by the FCC are generally allowed to collect whatever data they want on their customers and do whatever they want with it as long as they disclose to customers what they’re doing — typically in the form of seldom read and often impenetrable “privacy” policy.
What’s more, broadband providers are a potentially much bigger threat to privacy than even Google or Facebook. Consumers can choose not to use Google or Facebook. But most consumers don’t have much choice about their broadband provider — they usually have one choice and that’s it.
And while Google and Facebook are sucking up lots of customer data, they only see a fraction of consumers’ online activities. Broadband providers, by contrast, see basically everything you do online.
Allowing those companies to now collect whatever they want and do with it whatever they wish could have huge consequences.
“Gutting these privacy rules won’t just allow Internet Service Providers to spy on us and sell our personal information, it will also enable more unconstitutional mass government surveillance,” said Evan Greer, a campaign director at digital rights group Fight for the Future, in a statement.
She added that “the move will fundamentally undermine our cybersecurity by making our sensitive personal information vulnerable to hackers, identity thieves, and foreign governments.”
Heckuva job, Republicans.
Mock-up of a billboard ad designed by activist group Fight for the Future to target lawmakers who vote to strike down privacy rules passed by the Federal Communications Commission. Fight for the Future revealed the ad on Monday, March 27, 2017. (Courtesy Fight for the Future.)