Privacy Vote Draws More Public Reaction

Reaction to the Senate's partisan vote to roll back FCC broadband privacy regs continued to divide D.C. privacy players as well as reaction continued to roll in on the March 23 decision.

"The Senate is right in reversing the FCC's flawed broadband privacy and data security rules," said Consumer Technology Association President Gary Shapiro. "The Obama-era regulation threatens to undermine innovation and competition in the internet ecosystem; further, the FCC ignored the framework established by the Federal Trade Commission that already provides consumer protection to users' information, while enabling data-driven innovation. We thank Senator [Jeff] Flake  [the resolution's sponsor] and his colleagues for recognizing the FCC rule is overly broad and inconsistent with the FTC's approach and we urge the House to consider its own Congressional Review Act resolution to rescind the rule."

The House must still vote to approve the resolution, which passed the Senate 50 to 48, then it must be signed by the President, both of which are expected to happen.

"Fifty Senators voted to erase broadband customers' right to choose whether their internet service providers (ISPs) can sell their personal information, including every website they visit," said Center for Democracy and Technology policy analyst Natasha Duarte. "The information ISPs have about their customers includes web browsing and video viewing habits, religious information, sexual preferences, health conditions, and location. These are some of the most intimate details about people's lives, and customers should have control over how companies can use and share this information."

"By passing the CRA resolution striking down the FCC’s October privacy surprise, the Senate took a first step toward restoring a balanced privacy framework across the Internet," said High Tech Forum founder Richard Bennett. "Contrary to the claims some senators made immediately before the vote, ISPs do not have superior information about our browsing histories and app usage patterns."

Senate Democrats argued that the difference between the ISPS who are subject to the rules and edge providers who are not is that ISP's can track folks everywhere they go, and there is little competition for service if users don't want to be tracked.

"This action doesn’t solve the privacy problem by itself. The House needs to concur, and the President needs to sign the resolution. Following that action, it will be appropriate for Congress to vacate the Ninth Circuit decision applying the Common Carrier loophole to non-common carrier activities," Bennett said.

The court ruled that common carriage is conferred by status, not activity, so that, say, if common carrier Verizon bought Yahoo!, the web site would fall under the common carrier definition at least in terms of the Federal Trade Commission prohibition on regulating common carrier privacy, the aforementioned "loophole."

"The FCC's regulations were not only onerous, but also singled out ISPs with overly restrictive privacy responsibilities," said ACA President Matt Polka. "Meanwhile, the Internet's giant edge providers were exempt despite having access to similar, if not more, consumer data for their commercial use.

"Today's vote is an important step forward in clearing the path for FCC Chairman Pai and Acting FTC Chairman Ohlhausen, who have pledged to work together, to develop a new 'comprehensive and consistent framework' for protecting American's online privacy.

"Notwithstanding today's vote, ACA members are committed to maintaining their excellent record of protecting subscriber privacy."

ACA and other ISP groups have committed to a set of information and privacy protection principles regardless of what happens to the rules.

"Today’s vote to roll back broadband privacy protections was a giveaway to the cable and telecom lobby, demonstrating that Senators who supported the resolution prioritize the interests of large corporations over those of their constituents," said Demand Progress communications director Mark Stanley.

“Throughout the development of FCC broadband privacy rules, NTCA has championed consumer-centric principles of notice, choice and security,” said Shirley, CTO of NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association. “At the same time, NTCA has cautioned against regulations that would treat ISPs differently than other firms in the broadband market. Today’s Senate action affirms Congressional recognition that effective privacy protections for broadband users should exist without unnecessary or imbalanced regulatory measures. NTCA looks forward to working with the FCC as the rules are reconsidered in the agency proceeding, and to continuing our support of policies that recognize both consumer and industry interests.”

Center for Digital Democracy Executive Director Jeff Chester saw international implications to the vote.

"Today’s vote should trigger the European Union to begin reviewing the so-called “Privacy Shield” agreement allowing data to flow between the EU to the U.S.," he said. "Today’s decision puts our trading partners—and the U.S. companies that depend on the flow of information—at risk.  We will ask our EU consumer colleagues to press the European Commission to revoke the `shield.'"

"During the drafting of the rule, the FTC raised substantial concerns about the FCC’s proposed rule," said Jon Leibowitz, co-chair of the 21st Century Privacy Coalition and former FTC chair under President Obama. "While the FCC ultimately addressed some of these concerns, it failed to address the most important critiques in its final rule.  The

FCC did not embrace a technology neutral approach to privacy, setting out an overbroad definition of sensitive data out of step with consumer expectations, and failed to place sensible restrictions on its breach notification standard in its flawed rule.  And it is important to know that the CRA does not change the status quo:  The FCC still has authority to bring privacy cases and can vigorously do so, as it has in recent years.”

Calling it a "sledgehammer approach" that "smashed" hope for real online privacy protections, the Consumer Federation of America said: "There is no excuse for robbing Americans of these rights. Even worse, doing so through the Congressional Review Act prevents the FCC from ever proposing 'substantially similar' rules again."

"These regulations overreached what is necessary to protect consumers’ legitimate privacy interests," said Free State Foundation President Randolph May. "And without good reason or public benefit, the FCC’s rules disadvantaged competitively Internet providers vis-a-vis edge providers that, in fact, collect far more personal information. Moreover, because they overreached so much, the FCC’s regulations actually will prevent consumers from receiving targeted information that they value. I hope the House now follows the Senate’s lead."

“By voting to repeal these rules, Senate Republicans have sided with big broadband providers over consumers," said Open Technology Institute policy counsel Eric Null. "If this measure passes the House, ISPs like Comcast and AT&T will be able to sell their customers’ sensitive information without their consent. With no rule on the books, there is no cop on the beat to protect people who pay for internet services, leaving Americans with few options to protect their privacy online."

"There was a dubious rationale for the Wheeler FCC to impose different, harsher, standards on broadband internet access service providers," said Adonis Hoffman, chairman of Business in the Public Interest as well as a former top FCC and ad association official. "The FTC has always been the most effective enforcer of privacy for both consumers and business.  The Senate's action is a step in the right direction to restore the status quo ante."

“CTIA and the wireless industry applaud Senator Flake and the 24 resolution cosponsors for their leadership in seeking a commonsense and harmonized approach to protecting Americans’ privacy," said CTIA President Meredith Attwell Baker. "Wireless carriers are committed to safeguarding consumer privacy, and we support regulatory clarity and uniformity across our digital economy.”

“Consumers deserve a single, clear framework for how their private online information is protected and consistent standards for how – or if – data can be shared by companies," said USTelecom CEO Jonathan Spalter. "The step the Senate took today will remove the conflicting set of privacy protections set in motion by the FCC rules adopted last October. These rules varied from the industry principles developed last year and established a double-standard by creating different sets of regulation for internet service providers on the one hand and the rest of the internet ecosystem on the other. We appreciate Sen. Flake’s leadership and now look to the House to continue the momentum to ensure strong, clear and consistent privacy standards for American consumers.”

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.