The US Senate on Thursday voted narrowly to repeal a set of Obama-era privacy regulations imposed on internet service providers like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon. The regulations, passed by the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) last October, required internet providers to obtain explicit consent from consumers before sharing their web-browsing data and other personal information with third parties.
Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona proposed the resolution earlier this month via the Congressional Review Act. The vote passed with 50 Republicans approving the measure and 48 Democrats voting against it. The two remaining Republicans in the Senate were absent and did not cast a vote. The resolution will now move to the House of Representatives and if it passes there, it will need to be signed by President Trump before going into effect.
This will be seen as a significant victory for ISPs like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon. They had strongly opposed the rules and petitioned the FCC to scale back the regulations. Online advertising has become an important revenue stream for these companies. But the rules imposed by the FCC means ISPs would need to obtain consumer consent before using precise geolocation, financial information, health information or web browsing history for advertising.
ISPs felt the FCC’s privacy rules unfairly targeted them and didn’t impose the same restrictions on internet companies like Google and Facebook. They are not forced to obtain opt-in consent before they collect consumer’s web-browsing history. They also happen to be the two largest players in the digital advertising industry.
We have seen a similar argument being made in the European Union. In December, Reuters obtained new information on the EU’s plans to extend some of its telecom rules to online service providers. It revealed plans to force web services to guarantee the confidentiality of communications and obtain users’ consent to process their location data.
Democratic Senator Ed Markey said, "Republicans have just made it easier for American’s sensitive information about their health, finances and families to be used, shared, and sold to the highest bidder without their permission."
In a joint statement, Democratic members of the FCC and the Federal Trade Commission said the Senate vote "creates a massive gap in consumer protection law as broadband and cable companies now have no discernible privacy requirements."
But Republican Senator Mitch McConnell said the regulation had to be repealed because it “makes the internet an uneven playing field, increases complexity, discourages competition, innovation, and infrastructure investment."
The Internet and Television Association said the vote was a "critical step towards re-establishing a balanced framework that is grounded in the long-standing and successful FTC privacy framework that applies equally to all parties operating online."
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai reassured consumers that they would have privacy protections even without the Obama administration’s proposed rules.
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