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Public Fight Over Private Information

WASHINGTON — Internet service providers that have been sparring with congressional Democrats over an opt-in broadband privacy regime now have a Republican to contend with. But the consequences of a new bill backed by House Communications Subcommittee chair Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) would have a bigger impact on edge providers and advertisers.

In trying to prevent the FCC from applying that opt-in to ISPs, one of the bigger arguments providers have made is that those opt-in rules didn’t apply both to them and to edge providers such as Facebook or Google, which have a dominant share of the targeted advertising that relies on such data.

In the Balancing the Rights of Web Surfers Equally and Responsibly [BROWSER] Act, Blackburn has proposed to change that, retaining the FCC’s extension of “sensitive” information that requires opt-in consent for sharing beyond financial and health and children’s data to include web browsing, while moving enforcement of all broadband privacy under the Federal Trade Commission.

Related: Rep. Blackburn Defends Broadband Privacy Bill

ISPs have been quiet on the bill — NCTA-The Internet & Television Association said it was still vetting the measure at press time and would have no comment — but groups representing advertisers and edge providers certainly have not been.

The Association of National Advertisers is no fan of Blackburn’s BROWSER Act, sponsored by the Republican House Communications Subcommittee.

Among other things, the ANA says Blackburn’s bill repeats the “fatal mistake” of overbroad classification of sensitive information (it does not say “of web browsing,” which they feel is key), and what the industry trade group calls a “vague and confusing” opt-in regime that would “bombard consumers with annoying consent notices.”

If FCC chair Ajit Pai succeeds in rolling back classification of ISPs as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act, the Federal Trade Commission will again have enforcement authority over both edge providers and ISPs. Blackburn’s bill could beat the rollback to the punch, designating the FTC as the sole enforcer of online privacy.

Edge providers don’t want either the FCC or the FTC to start requiring them to get opt-in permission to share and monetize browser histories.

The Internet Association, whose largest members are Google, Amazon and Facebook, said the bill “has the potential to upend the consumer experience online and stifle innovation.”

Blackburn has fired back at her critics. “I thought the Internet Association would be more supportive of protecting consumers,” she told The Hill. Edge providers have, however, made clear their opposition to extending regulations to their neck of the ’net, arguing that ISPs have a unique gatekeeper position.

“I think if you ask the American people if they’re OK with having less control over their online privacy so companies can sell their data, they’d say no,” she said.

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.