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In a significant blow against privacy, the US Senate has voted to repeal a landmark set of internet privacy rules that would have prevented internet providers from sharing consumers’ online data without first obtaining their permission.
The privacy rules, which were passed by the FCC last year under the Obama Administration and due to go into effect later this year, were designed to protect data on consumers’ web browsing habits collected from their smartphones and computers.
The joint resolution to block the rules, which was authored by Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ), would also bar the regulatory agency from ever passing “substantially similar” rules again. It leverages something called the Congressional Review Act (CRA), which empowers Congress to strike down rules passed by federal agencies like the FCC.
Flake argued that the privacy rules amounted to a “bureaucratic power grab”. “Passing this CRA will send a powerful message that federal agencies can’t unilaterally restrict constitutional rights and expect to get away with it,” Flake said in a speech on the Senate floor.
Many Democrats vehemently opposed the resolution in the leadup to the vote. “This resolution is a direct attack on consumer rights, on privacy, on rules that afford basic protection against intrusive and illegal interference with consumers’ use of social media sites and websites that often they take for granted,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) prior to the vote.
The sweeping anti-privacy resolution passed 50 to 48 along party lines.
How the Senate Vote Jeopardizes Privacy
The consumer protections would have required internet service providers (ISPs) like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon to receive explicit permission from customers before collecting personal data, building subscriber profiles, and selling sensitive information — including app usage, geo-location, email content, communications, and browsing history– to third-party marketers for targeted ad campaigns. The rules also restricted the disclosure of medical and financial information, as well as children’s information and social security numbers, The Washington Post reports.
Now, everything from your WebMD searches, to online shopping activities, are up for sale. This also means that “years of your private information” can be monetized at the whim of cable and wireless providers without any federal oversight, warned the Electronic Frontiers Foundation.
Unsurprisingly, the FCC protections were vocally opposed by internet providers as well as industry groups like the NCTA – The Internet and Television Association, which represents major cable providers. Deregulation advocates argue that the FCC rules are sweeping, rely on an overly broad definition of ‘sensitive information’, and place ISPs at a disadvantage in competing with advertising giants like Facebook and Google, which aren’t restricted by the rules.
Civil liberties groups and consumer advocates argue that the resolution would severely jeopardize the privacy and sensitive data of Americans.
“It is extremely disappointing that the Senate voted today to sacrifice the privacy rights of Americans in the interest of protecting the profits of major internet companies, including Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon,” an ACLU representative wrote. “The resolution would undo privacy rules that ensure consumers control how their most sensitive information is used. The House must now stop this resolution from moving forward and stand up for our privacy rights.”
Now, the fate of the FCC rules lies in the hands of the House of Representatives, which is scheduled to vote on the resolution.
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