Senate votes to kill privacy rules meant to protect people's sensitive data from their Internet providers

The Senate narrowly voted Thursday to overturn tough new privacy rules for Internet service providers, employing a rarely used procedure to invalidate restrictions that cable and wireless companies strongly opposed.

The Republican-backed measure, approved 50 to 48, repeals regulations approved on a 3-2 party line vote in October by the Federal Communications Commission when it was controlled by Democrats.

The Senate vote broke down along party lines as well, with only Republicans supporting and no Democrats or independents voting in favor.

The bill is expected to pass the House in the coming weeks. President Trump, who campaigned on rolling back federal regulations, is likely to sign the repeal.

“The FCC privacy rules are just another example of burdensome rules that hurt more than they help,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).

The rules, which have not yet gone into effect, require AT&T Inc., Charter Communications Inc., Comcast Corp. and other broadband providers to get customer permission before using or sharing sensitive personal data, such as Web browsing or app usage history and the geographic trail of mobile devices.

Companies use consumer data to target advertising. Privacy advocates worry that Internet service providers are assembling detailed dossiers on their customers without their consent.

“These companies have built a ‘big data’ business model to track — and profit — from our every move online,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, which wants stronger privacy protections.

Republicans and broadband companies opposed the rules because they imposed tougher restrictions on high-speed Internet providers than on websites and social networks, which also collect and use such data.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Wednesday that the FCC’s privacy regulations make “the Internet an uneven playing field” and stifle innovation.

NCTA — the Internet & Television Assn., a trade group that includes cable companies, praised the Senate vote and said it would not harm consumer privacy.

“Our industry remains committed to offering services that protect the privacy and security of the personal information of our customers,” the group said. “We support this step towards reversing the FCC’s misguided approach and look forward to restoring a consistent approach to online privacy protection that consumers want and deserve.”

Democrats opposed the repeal and said it was the beginning of Republican efforts to roll back key telecommunications policies enacted during the Obama administration.

The ultimate target of the GOP and broadband providers, Democrats said, is the controversial online traffic rules known as net neutrality that are designed to ensure the free flow of content on the Internet. Net neutrality regulations also prohibit broadband providers from favoring their own content over those of competitors and from charging fees for faster delivery that could squeeze out smaller competitors.

“We know the attack on the free and open Internet is coming. This is their first step,” Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) said.

Democrats argued that consumers have fewer options for broadband service and those companies act as gatekeepers for online access. Privacy rules are even more important as corporate data breeches have become more frequent, Democrats said.

“The American public wants us to do more to protect their privacy. The American public wants us to do more to protect their sensitive information,” Markey said. “No one should be able to take all that information and just sell it without getting your permission.”

The action taken Thursday under the Congressional Review Act, which allows lawmakers to overturn recently enacted federal regulations, prohibited a Senate filibuster.

That meant Republicans needed only a simple majority to bring up and pass the measure, which was sponsored by Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).

Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union, blasted Senate Republicans for the move.

“The FCC rules were carefully designed to give broadband customers greater choice and security for their private data,” he said. “This move by the Senate is a huge step in the wrong direction, and it completely ignores the needs and concerns of consumers.”

The privacy rules were already in trouble before the Senate acted.

After Republicans took over the FCC’s majority with Trump’s inauguration, the agency voted 2 to 1 along party lines this month to halt the first of those privacy regulations that were scheduled to go into effect the next day. That provision dealt with new data security requirements.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who voted against the rules in October, said the delay would give the agency time to consider formal requests from trade groups representing Internet service providers to reconsider the regulations.

The FCC probably would overturn the rules after such a reconsideration. But the congressional measure would short-circuit that process and invalidate the rules immediately while also preventing the FCC from issuing privacy regulations in the future that are “substantially the same.”

Under the regulations, cable and wireless companies that offer broadband service would need customer approval to share all but nonsensitive data. Consumers would have to opt out of the sharing of that information.

But such nonsensitive information is limited — most customer data would be considered sensitive under the FCC’s definitions.

Before the FCC gained privacy authority over broadband providers last year as part of its net neutrality rules, those companies did not have to get permission to use or share any data.

The FCC’s definition of sensitive data is broader than that of the Federal Trade Commission, which oversees privacy for search engines and social networks. The FTC said companies don’t need consent before using or sharing nonsensitive data, although customers can opt out.

“The FCC should have made sure its regulatory approach matched the FTC’s framework,” Pai said Thursday.

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jim.puzzanghera@latimes.com

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UPDATES:

12:15 p.m.: This article was updated with a breakdown of the Senate vote, comment from Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy and details about how companies use consumer data.

An earlier version of this article said Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) was a member of the House of Representatives. He's a senator.
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