Congress guts internet rule on privacy, giving providers right to snoop for data

Under a proposed change heading for President Donald Trump’s desk, broadband providers would be allowed monitor how customers use the internet and sell the data to advertisers.
Under a proposed change heading for President Donald Trump’s desk, broadband providers would be allowed monitor how customers use the internet and sell the data to advertisers. McClatchy

The Republican-controlled Congress on Tuesday passed a bill for President Donald Trump’s signature that would empower internet service providers to snoop on users without their consent and sell the data to marketers.

Republican proponents of the measure hailed the measure as a way to level the playing field for broadband companies like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon and give them a leg up against content companies like Google and Facebook.

Democratic opponents said the measure would allow broadband companies to monitor all aspects of daily computer usage and reap profits by selling intimate data to advertisers.

Internet security experts also predicted a wide range of other potential impact, from lenders using data to act on loan applications to criminal finding a sweet new collection of data to hack.

“We believe today’s misguided vote will unleash even more ‘Big Data’ profiling and tracking of Americans, and spur an array of discriminatory practices,” said Katharina Kopp, policy director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a privacy organization based in Washington.

“Information about your activities may wind up being used to make adverse decisions about you. Something your kids search for online could be the basis for why you are denied a loan,” said Peter Eckersley, chief computer scientist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group based in San Francisco.

Companies, too, could find sensitive information compromised.

“If an ISP can sell information about how many of your employees are searching for jobs right now, why would they not traffic in that?” Eckersley asked.

The House vote cleaved closely to party lines, passing 215 to 205, with 15 Republicans breaking ranks to oppose the measure. No Democrats supported it. The vote came a week after the Senate approved the measure precisely along party lines. Trump is expected to sign the bill without delay.

Republicans favoring the rollback of Federal Communications Commission regulations, enacted in 10 days before last year’s presidential election, said the move is part of efforts to sweep away unnecessary regulation.

Rep. Michael C. Burgess, a Texas Republican, said the FCC rules were “promulgated by bureaucrats who remain unaccountable to the American people.”

Burgess, who led the House Republican debate, said broadband providers are held to a different standard than content giants like Google and Facebook, which already collect some user data, under an existing system in which the FCC and the Federal Trade Commission share aspects of regulation.

“Having two privacy cops on the beat will create confusion within the internet ecosystem,” echoed Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.

Several Democratic lawmakers voiced anger at the proposed rollback on privacy, calling it an assault on a precious right so that corporate interests may profit.

“It is outrageous,” said Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat. “I can’t believe that a person who is a constitutional conservative would vote for a monstrosity like this.”

“The message to the American people is clear: Your privacy doesn’t matter,” said Rep. Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat whose district includes Silicon Valley.

In a letter, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called on 11 internet service providers to state publicly whether they supported eliminating the privacy protections. Those companies are AT&T, Century Link, Charter, Comcast, Cox, Frontier, Optimum, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon and Windstream.

“Internet service providers must now stand up and be counted — whether they will stand with consumers in opposing the Republican bill, or announce their eagerness to sell the private information of the American people,” Pelosi said in a statement.

In the end, however, while trade groups supported overturning of the FCC rules, no major broadband company came forward to put its name on the measure, noted Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Penn.

“This resolution is of the swamp, for the swamp, and for no one else,” Doyle said.

The measure to favor commercial interests over consumer privacy has the potential to shift how consumers use the internet, perhaps turning to encryption or other techniques to sidestep around-the-clock monitoring. But private browsing methods and encryption may not be enough to hide your internet use from the eyes and algorithms of a service provider determined to glean information.

“We haven’t figure out how to make encryption that hides everything you do online and is practical for everyday use,” said Eckersley of Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Blackburn, the Tennessee Republican, dismissed concerns that consumers would have little recourse if companies fail to protect their data.

“Litigation is another avenue that consumers can pursue against ISPs for mishandling personal data,” Blackburn said.

Tim Johnson: 202-383-6028, @timjohnson4