Editorial

Republicans 'fix' online privacy rules by making your browsing history less private

Concerned that the Federal Communications Commission had overreached when it imposed new privacy rules on Internet Service Providers last year, congressional Republicans have responded not with a better approach to safeguarding consumer privacy, but with none at all. It's just another example of their repeal-first, ask-question-later approach, one that puts ideology ahead of outcomes.

The move by the House and Senate to repeal the rules at the behest of major phone and cable companies would allow those firms to sell revealing personal data they gather about their customers — their browsing habits, the apps they use, where they take their mobile devices — to advertisers and other buyers, whether their customers want the data to be sold or not.

These rules — the first privacy regulations ever applied to broadband providers, which previously had operated under the watch of the Federal Trade Commission — were too stiff for congressional Republicans, who rushed through a resolution (SJ Res 34) to repeal the FCC’s action and make it hard for the agency to adopt a similar rule ever again.

Critics focused on the FCC’s requirement that broadband providers obtain a customer’s permission before disclosing “sensitive” information, such as the sites he or she had visited online, a mobile device’s location or the mobile apps used. The FCC allowed broadband providers to share “non-sensitive” information, such as the customer’s name and address, by default unless customers opted out.

That’s a more restrictive approach than the FTC requires websites and online advertising networks to take, critics complain, noting that the FTC doesn’t consider a person’s browsing history or app use to be sensitive information. They’re right about this: Having a single standard for the entire Internet ecosystem would be a good thing, considering how broadband providers, sites, services and apps all compete for some of the same advertising dollars. That’s no reason to set the bar low, however; instead, it’s a good argument for pushing the FTC to demand more of the companies under its jurisdiction.

You might think that Congress would try to address this question — what the right standard for privacy should be online — before taking a sledgehammer to the FCC’s rules. You would be mistaken. If President Trump signs the resolution the House passed Tuesday, the online playing field will continue to be tilted, and ISPs will still be treated differently from all other players online. Only this time ISPs would face lighter regulation — and their users would be more vulnerable.

Granted, the resolution won’t revoke the provision of federal communications law that requires all telecommunications services, including broadband providers, not to divulge “customer proprietary network information” without permission. What data fall into that category, however, remains a mystery — the law was written with telephone service in mind, not Internet access. And enforcement of the law would be left to the FCC, which is now dominated by Republican members who view regulation as an impediment to investment, not a safeguard for consumers.

Nor can most consumers count on competition in the market to guard them against privacy abuses, because they have few options for broadband service at home.

That competition may be coming as new, ultra-high-capacity fixed and mobile wireless services enter the market in the years ahead. In the meantime, though, eliminating the FCC’s rules would appear to free Internet providers to track where their customers go and what they do online, create detailed profiles of their behavior and sell that information to advertisers, credit card companies, lenders or anyone else eager for these insights.

That’s unacceptable. If the problem is unequal regulation, one solution would have been for Congress to give the FTC the power to regulate the privacy practices of all businesses online, from broadband providers to Facebook game developers. That wouldn’t be ideal, given the FTC’s permissive approach to data about consumers’ browsing habits and mobile app usage. But at least the rule would be applied comprehensively.

Republicans aren’t heading in that direction, however. In fact, even as they hold up the FTC as the model for online privacy protection, they’ve been trying to weaken the agency’s power to crack down on bad privacy practices online. Their cavalier attitude about privacy puts them at odds with their constituents, who have consistently told pollsters that they are deeply worried about their privacy online. President Trump should listen to the grass roots on this one and veto SJ Res 34.

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