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Republicans roll back the clock on Internet privacy protections

Advocates of Internet privacy protections received some very bad news yesterday. Slate’s report summarized the developments on Capitol Hill nicely:
In a defeat for digital privacy advocates, the House of Representatives voted Tuesday to allow internet service providers to sell information about consumers’ browsing history without their knowledge or consent.

The bill repeals FCC the broadband privacy rules passed during the final months of the Obama administration. In addition to protecting customer data, the rules, which never had a chance to go into effect, also required the providers to notify customers when they experienced a data breach. The Senate voted to revoke the rules last week.
Politico tweeted overnight that the House voted “nearly unanimously to revoke broadband privacy rules.” That’s not even close to being true: the House voted 215 to 205. Literally zero Democrats voted for the bill, while nearly every Republican voted for it. In the Senate, the same legislation passed 50 to 48, again along party lines. (Sen. Rand Paul missed the vote, but was a co-sponsor of the legislation.)

Donald Trump is expected to sign the measure sometime soon.

And for privacy advocates, that’s discouraging. As the Washington Post reported, service providers, including online giants such Verizon and Comcast (MSNBC’s parent company), “will be able to monitor their customers’ behavior online and, without their permission, use their personal and financial information to sell highly targeted ads – making them rivals to Google and Facebook in the $83 billion online advertising market. The providers could also sell their users’ information directly to marketers, financial firms and other companies that mine personal data – all of whom could use the data without consumers’ consent.”

Slate’s piece added that it’s not just privacy at stake: “Some proponents of the FCC regulation argued that allowing ISPs to keep track of and sell consumers’ data exposes their information to more security threats. The Electronic Frontier Foundation notes that if internet providers want to sell customers’ data, they’ll have to collect it first, which makes for an appealing target for hackers.”

Why, exactly, did congressional Republicans make this such a priority, just two months into the new term? That’s not at all clear, actually. The majority has been eager to target Obama-era safeguards that had not yet been fully implemented, and this was on the list.

As Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum put it recently, “It’s not unexpected, but I still can’t figure out why Republicans are so hellbent on doing this. There’s nothing particularly conservative about allowing telecom companies to collect personal information without permission. Neither the general public nor the tea party base is clamoring to repeal this rule. And there’s no special reason Republicans should favor telecoms in their endless fight against content providers (Google, Facebook, etc.). But Republicans seem to prefer a privacy free-for-all.”