Senate votes to kill FCC's broadband privacy rules

The Senate action would allow broadband providers to sell customer data and browser histories without permission, critics say.

FCC building in Washington
Credit: Federal Communications Commission

The U.S. Senate has voted to kill broadband provider privacy regulations prohibiting them from selling customers' web-browsing histories and other data without their permission.

The Senate's 50-48 vote Thursday on a resolution of disapproval would roll back Federal Communications Commission rules requiring broadband providers to receive opt-in customer permission to share sensitive personal information, including web-browsing history, geolocation, and financial details with third parties. The FCC approved the regulations just five months ago.

Thursday's vote was largely along party lines, with Republicans voting to kill the FCC's privacy rules and Democrats voting to keep them.

The Senate's resolution, which now heads to the House of Representatives for consideration, would allow broadband providers to collect and sell a "gold mine of data" about customers, said Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat. 

"Your mobile broadband provider knows how you move about your day through information about your geolocation and internet activity through your mobile device," he said. The Senate resolution "will take consumers out of this driver’s seat and place the collection and use of their information behind a veil of secrecy."

But critics of the rules say they are expensive to ISPs and subject them to tough privacy regulations not imposed on web-based companies like Google and Facebook. The FCC's sister agency, the Federal Trade Commission, can bring privacy complaints against web-based companies that aren't ISPs, but the FTC doesn't create privacy regulations, instead typically taking action on a case-by-case basis when companies violate their own privacy promises.

The FCC rules are confusing and costly and "make the internet an uneven playing field," said Senator Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican and Senate majority leader.

The IPS privacy regulations are "burdensome rules that hurt more than they help," added Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican.

The FCC has been moving on its own to roll back the ISP privacy rules this year after a Republican majority took over the commission. Earlier this month, the FCC voted to stay a part of the rules requiring broadband providers to take reasonable steps to protect the security of customer data.

Supporters of the regulations say they were necessary after the FCC reclassified broadband as a regulated service, taking privacy enforcement away from the FTC, as part of net neutrality rules in early 2015.

Privacy advocates blasted the Senate's vote, and many net neutrality advocates see the vote as an early step toward dismantling net neutrality.

The vote kills "the only privacy protections Americans can have when they use the internet or their mobile phones," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. If Congress passes the resolution, "Americans will become victims of massive ongoing surveillance from their ISPs," he added.

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