House Republicans voted overwhelmingly Tuesday, by a margin of 215-205, to repeal a set of landmark privacy protections for web users, issuing a sweeping rebuke of internet policies enacted under the Obama administration. It also marks a sharp, partisan pivot toward letting internet providers collect and sell their customers’ web browsing history, location information, health data and other personal details.
The measure, which was approved by a 50-48 margin in the Senate last week, now heads to the White House, where President Donald Trump is expected to sign it.
Congress’ joint resolution empowers internet providers to enter the $83 billion market for online advertising now dominated by Google and Facebook.
It is likely to lend momentum to a broader GOP rollback of Obama-era technology policies, and calls into question the fate of other tech regulations such as net neutrality, which was approved in 2015 over strident Republican objections and bans Internet providers from discriminating against websites. And it is a sign that companies such as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon will be treated more permissively at a time when conservatives control all three branches of government.
Supporters of Tuesday’s repeal vote argued the privacy regulations, written by the Federal Communications Commission, stifle innovation by forcing Internet providers to abide by unreasonably strict guidelines.
“(Consumer privacy) will be enhanced by removing the uncertainty and confusion these rules will create,” said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., who chairs the House subcommittee that oversees the FCC.
Internet providers can collect enormous amounts of personal information because they can see all of the online activities of users as they browse different sites on the web, critics of the legislation said. And unlike search engines or streaming video sites, which consumers can easily abandon if they do not agree with their privacy practices, it is far more difficult to choose a different Internet provider. Many Americans have a choice of only one or two broadband companies in their area, according to federal statistics.
Privacy advocates called the House vote “a tremendous setback for America.”
“Today’s vote means that Americans will never be safe online from having their most personal details stealthily scrutinized and sold to the highest bidder,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. “Donald Trump, by giving away our data to the country’s leading phone and cable giants, is further undermining American democracy.”
Industry groups said Tuesday’s vote does not diminish broadband companies’ commitment to user privacy.
“Our providers care very deeply and have a strong track record of operating in ways that protect and safeguard the privacy of their customers’ data,” said James Assey, executive vice president of NCTA – The Internet & Television Association, a top cable trade association. “These are program features that are built in by design; they existed long before the FCC rules were adopted, and they will exist long after the FCC rules are withdrawn.”
The FCC’s new Republican chairman, Ajit Pai, called the legislation “appropriate” and blamed his predecessor for executive overreach. He also said that responsibility for regulating Internet providers should fall to the Federal Trade Commission, despite the fact that the agency currently lacks the legal authority to do so.
“Moving forward, I want the American people to know that the FCC will work with the FTC to ensure that consumers’ online privacy is protected though a consistent and comprehensive framework,” said Pai. “The best way to achieve that result would be to return jurisdiction over broadband providers’ privacy practices to the FTC, with its decades of experience and expertise in this area.”