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House moves to protect internet service customers’ privacy

UPDATED: Thu., April 20, 2017, 7:32 a.m.

This Feb. 19, 2014, file photo shows WhatsApp and Facebook app icons on a smartphone in New York. (Patrick Sison / Associated Press)
FILE - In this Feb. 25, 2014, file photo, a Samsung Galaxy S5 is demonstrated at the Mobile World Congress, the world's largest mobile phone trade show in Barcelona, Spain. (Manu Fernandez / AP)

OLYMPIA – Any company that provides internet service in Washington would have to ask their customers to “opt in” to any system that sells their personal browsing history, under a bill that passed the House Wednesday with overwhelming, bipartisan support.

With just days remaining in the regular session, the House sent the Senate a bill that members said they were forced to rush through the process to protect their constituents’ privacy because Congress had failed to do that.

“This is not an issue of our making,” Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, said. “We are taking seriously our obligation … of guaranteeing our citizens’ right to privacy.”

It’s not a perfect fix, Manweller said. Web browsers like Google and internet retailers like Amazon can still sell data of people who use their services or sites. “We have locked the front door and left the back door wide open,” he said.

But other supporters said internet users can switch browsers or shop at another site if they don’t like those companies’ policies, and most of those services are free. Some internet users don’t have a choice of internet service providers, or ISPs, and they pay for the service.

The bill has 75 co-sponsors, including some of the House’s most liberal Democrats and most conservative Republicans. It just surfaced two weeks ago, after Congress voted to suspend pending rules on ISPs, prompting a wave of concern among their customers about the potential sale of private information those companies can collect.

The ISPs, who include some of the nation’s largest telecommunications companies, have tried to assure customers that they do not currently sell that data, but critics have said only government intervention can ensure that doesn’t change.

In a hearing on the bill, lobbyists representing the ISPs and other sectors of the technology industry argued individual states should not enact their own rules, but instead should wait for a single national standard.

In response, the bill was amended on the House floor to give Congress time to act. If it passes a federal law with the same protections by Dec. 21, 2018, the Washington law would be repealed automatically, Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, the bill’s prime sponsor, said.

But the Legislature isn’t the driving force behind proposal, he added. “It comes from we the people.”

If Congress doesn’t act, the Legislature must even if other states don’t, said House Technology and Economic Development Committee Chairman Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon. Washington is one of the few states that has a right of individual privacy in its constitution.

The bill now goes to the Senate, where it faces an uncertain future. A separate Senate proposal seeking to ensure internet privacy through the state consumer protection act has more than 30 co-sponsors. It was introduced the same day as the House proposal, but never received a committee hearing.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said earlier this week he didn’t see a need to rush through legislation on the issue.

But Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island and the prime sponsor of the Senate bill, said Wednesday evening that chamber “must now do its part and act” now that the House has passed its bill.

Complicating any action is the fact that the Legislature is running out of time in its regular session. A special session will be needed to work out the state’s 2017-19 operating budget, but whether other issues will be considered is up to leaders in both chambers.



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