Rep. Blackburn Defends Broadband Privacy Bill

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) chairman of the House Communications Subcommittee, fired back at criticism of her new broadband privacy bill leveled by some of its targets.

Blackburn has introduced the Balancing the Rights of Web Surfers Equally and Responsibly (BROWSER) Act of 2017, which would designate the Federal Trade Commission as the sole enforcer of online privacy and apply the same privacy regime to ISPs and edge providers, a regime similar to the one the FCC imposed on ISPs before it was nullified.

That new bill did not sit well with the Internet Association, which said the bill "has the potential to upend the consumer experience online and stifle innovation." Internet Association members include Google, Facebook and Amazon. 

"Policymakers must recognize that websites and apps continue to be under strict FTC privacy enforcement and are not in an enforcement gap, unlike other stakeholders in the ecosystem," the association said (those unnamed "others" are ISPs). 

In response, Blackburn said in a statement to The Hill newspaper: "I thought the Internet Association would be more supportive of protecting consumers," she said, though edge providers have made clear their opposition to extending regs to their neck of the internet, arguing that ISPs have a unique gatekeeper positon. "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.

Blackburn was one of the leaders of a successful effort by Republicans in Congress to invalidate the FCC's broadband privacy rules, adopted under former chairman Tom Wheeler, that would have required opt-in permission for ISPs to share subscribers' online data for marketing purposes, while the FTC, which oversees edge provider privacy, has no such requirement. 

The FCC deeded itself authority over ISP privacy, formerly enforced by the FTC, when it reclassified ISPs under common carrier regs—the FTC does not have enforcement authority over common carriers—but is looking to return that authority to the FTC under new Republican chairman Ajit Pai by unclassifying it as a telecom common carrier under Title II, which Blackburn strongly supports. But that process will take at least until the late summer or early fall. 

On a party line vote Oct. 27, 2016, the Wheeler-led FCC adopted the rules, which would have required ISPs to get their subs' permission to collect and share web use, app use and geolocation information with third parties and would have imposed data security and breach reporting requirements.

(Photo via Gage Skidmores Flickr. Image taken on May 25, 2017 and used per Creative Commons 2.0 license. The photo was cropped to fit 9x16 aspect ratio.)

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.