OLYMPIA – Lawmakers’ efforts to enact state restrictions against the sale of information about residents’ internet use faces two major hurdles – time running out in the legislative session and a full-court press by the telecommunications industry to convince them that would only cause unnecessary confusion.
The time for either chamber to consider new legislation has passed, absent parliamentary maneuvering, but the House Technology and Economic Development Committee held a hearing Wednesday morning on one of two new bills with broad bipartisan support that were introduced after Congress voted early this month to block new guidelines against the release data on internet usage.
A different bill on the topic in the Senate is in limbo, with no committee hearing scheduled even though it has 35 sponsors or co-sponsors in the 49-member chamber.
Supporters of the bills say they are necessary to give consumers the right to keep internet service providers, or ISPs, from collecting and selling data on what sites they visit or products they buy online.
“Privacy is in the state constitution,” Alex Alben, the state’s chief privacy officer, said. “We believe in privacy as far back as 1889.”
Requiring ISPs, which include the major telecommunications companies and cable television services, to allow customers to opt-in to any plan to collect their data, would build consumer confidence, he said.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson also encouraged lawmakers to pass consumer protections against the unwanted use of their internet data.
But a long line of lobbyists for the ISPs urged the committee to kill the bill, saying consumers have no immediate worries and the country should have a single, nationwide rule, not 50 different rules in 50 states.
Congress did not lessen privacy protections earlier this month by voting to block new Federal Communications Commission guidelines, Tom Gurr of the Pacific Technology Institute said. It left the status quo intact, and ISPs have policies to protect their customers’ privacy, he said.
Using the internet for a simple transaction can involve companies in several states, said Michael Schutzler of the Washington Technology Industry Association. But different states are considering different bills, which each might amend as their lawmakers choose, leading to “a staggering amount of legislation.”
“Please wait a few months to see if the (Federal Trade Commission) takes this on or Congress puts the onus back on the FCC,” Schutzler said. “If the feds do nothing, I promise you we will be back here to help draft legislation.”
Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, the prime sponsor of the Senate bill, said he doesn’t trust the ISP companies to help draft a law that would police them. Their contention that consumers haven’t lost anything because the rules hadn’t taken effect is “spin,” Ranker said. The rules were scheduled to take effect but the ISPs fought them at the FCC and in Congress to block them.
With the congressional action, the federal government has no real privacy enforcement, he said.
The House Technology Committee is expected to vote on its bill and an amendment that would restrict ISPs turning over information about customers to government agencies sometime before next Wednesday, Chairman Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon, said. Its fate after that is uncertain; the regular legislative session is scheduled to end by April 23 but budget negotiations are likely to require a special session where work on some bills could continue.
The Senate bill, a much shorter proposal which would allow consumer protection laws to be used against unauthorized use of internet data, has been assigned to a committee but has no hearing scheduled. Earlier this week, Republican leaders described it as a “boiler plate bill” that was submitted too late in the session to have adequate time for study. Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said he didn’t see the need to rush it through a hearing and vote because the recent congressional action didn’t change any laws, it merely kept new regulations from taking effect.
With a super majority of the Senate sponsoring the bill, Ranker said he wouldn’t rule out a move to try forcing the bill to the floor for debate without a committee hearing but he didn’t know whether Republican leadership would block that maneuver.
Schoesler indicated that was possible, noting at a Monday news conference: “Signing the bill and the bill passing are two different things.”
Heavy lobbying from ISPs could keep Washington from passing the legislation this year, Ranker said, but similar legislation is pending in more than two dozen other states. “They may be able to kill it here, but not kill it everywhere.”
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