Wednesday, March 29, 2017
WASHINGTON — Congress completed its overturning of the nation’s strongest internet privacy protections for individuals on Tuesday in a victory for telecommunications companies, which can track and sell a customer’s online information with greater ease.
In a 215-to-205 vote largely along party lines, House Republicans moved to dismantle rules created by the Federal Communications Commission in October. Those rules, which had been slated to go into effect later this year, had required broadband providers to receive permission before collecting data on a user’s online activities.
The action, which follows a similar vote in the Senate last week, will next be brought to President Trump, who is expected to sign the bill into law. A swift repeal may be a prelude to further deregulation of the telecommunications industry.
Republicans said President Barack Obama’s appointee to the F.C.C., Tom Wheeler, had created a slew of overbearing rules for broadband providers that would put them at a disadvantage relative to internet companies like Google and Netflix. Those internet companies are not regulated by the F.C.C. but are increasingly in competition with telecom companies for online streaming customers.
Lawmakers and Republican regulators at the F.C.C. have said they plan to target the 2015 classification of broadband as a utilitylike service that is strapped with strong regulatory oversight. They are also set to seek the overturning of Obama-era net neutrality rules that forbade broadband providers from blocking, slowing down or charging extra for downloads of websites and apps.
“What we’ve created is confusion, and this is the way to rein in an agency that was overreaching,” said Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee, who introduced the House bill to overturn the privacy rules. She used the Congressional Review Act in a procedure that lets lawmakers scrap regulations recently created by government agencies.
Ms. Blackburn said the Federal Trade Commission, which enforces privacy policies created by web companies such as Facebook and Google, was the best agency to oversee broadband privacy.
The White House issued a statement just before the House vote expressing support for the overhaul of privacy rules.
“The rule departs from the technology-neutral framework for online privacy administered by the Federal Trade Commission,” the Trump administration said. “This results in rules that apply very different regulatory regimes based on the identity of the online actor.”
Broadband companies immediately celebrated the House vote. They promised they would honor their voluntary privacy policies, noting that violations would be subject to lawsuits.
“Today’s vote removing another set of unnecessary regulations is a win-win for consumers and their privacy,” said Jonathan Spalter, the chief executive of the broadband lobbying group USTelecom. “Online users will continue to have the consistent and strong privacy protections they require and the promise of continued innovation they expect from the internet.”
Democratic lawmakers and regulators protested the vote, saying consumers had few options for high-speed internet service, which meant more government oversight of the companies was needed. Broadband providers have an expansive view into consumers’ online habits, including seeing what sites and apps are visited, which can expose sensitive information.
The F.C.C. rules would have given consumers greater power to stop companies from making money off such information, the Democrats said.
“The rules gave individuals control over their information when it comes to privacy,” Mignon Clyburn, the sole Democratic F.C.C. commissioner, said in an interview. “The proprietary information these companies have at their disposal should not only be treated with care, but consumers should have a voice.