Senate votes to allow your web history data to be sold without permission

A man  uses a laptop in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images)

By Meg Wagner

Consumer rights vs. company rights

The Republican-controlled Senate voted on Thursday to repeal a set of internet privacy rules that would have barred providers from selling off their customers’ web histories without their permission.

The rules — which were passed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in October but had not yet gone into effect — would have required internet service providers, such as Comcast and Verizon, to inform their customers if they collected data from web browsing and get explicit consent before selling that information to advertisers.

U.S. senators voted along party lines — 50 Republicans voted yes and 48 Democrats voted no — to approve a resolution that stops the rules from going into effect.

Republicans claimed the regulations went too far and unnecessarily burdened internet companies, and the industry lauded the move to overturn them. “Our industry remains committed to offering services that protect the privacy and security of the personal information of our customers. We support this step towards reversing the FCC’s misguided approach,” the Internet & Television Association (NCTA)  wrote in a statement.

But Senate Democrats and internet privacy advocates said reversing the rules was an attack on consumers’ right to privacy. “The American people do not want their sensitive information collected, used and sold by any third party, whether that be your broadband provider or a hacker,” Sen. Edward Markey (D-Ma.) said on the Senate floor ahead of the vote.

A bid to protect ‘sensitive’ data

Internet service providers have long kept track of customer data, including everything from web histories to locations and the content of emails. But they’ve never had to directly tell their users about it.

The new rules would have changed that, making it a requirement for internet service providers to inform their customers about what kind of information they’re collecting.

The new rules would have also specified that if a company wanted to share or sell users’ “sensitive” information — browsing histories, locations, and emails are included in that category, as is medical and financial data and information on children — they’d need explicit consent from the customers to do so. Some providers have sold users’ data to other companies for targeted advertising.

When the FCC passed the rules under the Obama administration, the organization was composed of three Democrats and two Republicans. At the time, the commission’s chairman, Democrat Tom Wheeler, said the rules were meant to protect all internet users.

“It is the consumer’s information,” he said ahead of October’s vote. “How it is used should be the consumer’s choice, not the choice of some corporate algorithm.”

When Wheeler, an Obama appointee, left the FCC in January ahead of President Donald Trump’s inauguration, Republican FCC commissioner Ajit Pai took his seat as chairman — and again began criticizing the privacy rules, just like he did after the October vote.

Another Democratic member stepped down, too, leaving the commission with a 2-1 Republican majority. That paved the way for the board to overturn the regulations itself, although two seats on the five-member board remain empty.

But the Senate, instead, used the Congressional Review Act to nix the incoming rule. The act lets Congress overturn new federal regulations with a simple majority instead of the standard three-fifths vote.

Calling on the House to ‘stand up for our privacy rights’

The move to repeal the privacy rule will need to pass in the House before it heads to Trump’s desk to be signed into law. The House is also Republican-controlled, and if representatives take the Senate’s lead and vote along party lines, the repeal will pass.

Any federal organization that has a regulation repealed under the Congressional Review Act is barred from implementing new rules that are too much like the nixed ones. Which means that even if the newly appointed members of the FCC wanted to pass another similar privacy rule, they wouldn’t be allowed to.

Privacy advocates condemned the vote, saying that it killed important consumer protections. While the vote doesn’t give internet service providers any more power than they already have, the move blocks what advocates see as a step forward for privacy rights.  

“It is extremely disappointing that the Senate voted today to sacrifice the privacy rights of Americans in the interest of protecting the profits of major internet companies, including Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon,” ACLU Legislative Counsel Neema Singh Guliani said. “The resolution would undo privacy rules that ensure consumers control how their most sensitive information is used.”

“The House must now stop this resolution from moving forward and stand up for our privacy rights,” she urged.

The House has not yet scheduled a vote on the resolution.