Congress just killed online privacy rules. Now what? (FAQ)

Republicans in Congress have repealed the FCC's rules protecting your online data. What's it mean for you? CNET has the answers.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
6 min read
Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images
Watch this: What the repeal of internet privacy rules means to you

Obama-era rules designed to regulate how broadband companies handle your private information online are on their way out.

As of Tuesday, both houses of Congress have voted to repeal regulations adopted last year by the Federal Communications Commission. The next step is a signature from President Donald Trump, who has already signaled he's eager to get rid of the regulation.


Both houses of Congress have voted to stop new FCC consumer-privacy rules from kicking in.

Marguerite Reardon/CNET

This follows efforts by new FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to put the brakes on stricter requirements on broadband companies to protect your data from hackers. Consumer advocacy groups argue that such rules protect your privacy, while internet service providers say the regulations are too strict and aren't fair because they don't apply to online companies like Facebook or Google.

So what's all this mean for consumers? CNET has put together this FAQ to help explain.

What just happened?

The House of Representatives on Tuesday voted 215-205 to stop FCC regulations from taking effect that would have required broadband and wireless companies to ask your permission before sharing sensitive information about you, such as the websites you visit, the apps you use or even your location. The rules would have also set standards for broadband providers to protect information they collect and store. And they would have set requirements for when and how companies would inform you if your data was stolen.

The House vote follows a 50-48 vote in the Senate, which invoked the Congressional Review Act. This law gives Congress the power to override regulations adopted by federal agencies before they go into effect.

Tuesday's vote basically kills rules that the Democrat-led FCC adopted in October. Now that bill will go to Trump to sign.

Had these rules gone into effect?

No. The FCC voted 2-1 earlier this month to put on hold the data security provision of the rules. The provision that would require customers to "opt in" to allow your internet service provider to share personal information with marketers was still under review by the White House's Office of Management and Budget.

Is this a big deal?

Yes. According to a report published last year, Americans are more worried about their data privacy than they are about losing their main source of income. The rules the FCC adopted were the strictest set of regulations that had ever been imposed to protect consumer online privacy. Even though the rules only included broadband and wireless providers, and excluded internet companies like Google and Facebook, proponents saw it as a first step in giving consumers more control of their personal data online.

What's this mean for me?

Since the FCC's rules never actually went into effect, you won't notice much difference in how companies are protecting your privacy. But eventually, you'll see a lot more targeted advertising and creepy ads that follow you all over the internet. Your broadband provider, whether that's AT&T, Verizon or Comcast, will still be able to sell some information about you to advertisers, just as Google and Facebook can.

Broadband providers are already moving into the content business, and they're likely to get more aggressive in how the information is used and who gets to use it.

Is that a bad thing for me?

Not necessarily. Internet service providers may use advertising to subsidize the cost of your service. So in exchange for trying to sell you stuff, they may cut the price of your service or offer you free or special access to content.

What does that mean for my privacy on the internet?

You won't have much say how your personal information is used by your broadband provider or anyone else. But there will still be a cop on the privacy beat looking out for the most egregious violations of privacy.

Even without formal rules in place, the FCC is still in charge of protecting privacy for wireless and broadband customers. And it will continue to look at privacy concerns on a case-by-case basis. However, the agency will not be using the strict rules and standards it set in October. Instead, it will likely use a similar approach to what the Federal Trade Commission uses to keep tabs on companies like Facebook and Google.

This means that internet service providers will be able to sell your personal information to marketers without needing your consent. However, the agency can still investigate claims of privacy abuse by these companies.

The FCC has demonstrated that it can step in to protect consumers. In April 2015, after it passed net neutrality rules giving it jurisdiction over privacy, the agency fined AT&T $25 million for failing to protect customer information, including Social Security numbers.

Who supports these rules?

Supporters include consumer advocates like Free Press and Public Knowledge, and Democrats, such as Sens. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Al Franken of Minnesota, as well as Tom Wheeler, the former FCC chairman who championed these rules. They say the FCC rules would provide better protections for consumers. The rules, they say, are justified because consumers have few choices when it comes to broadband.

Online giants including Google, Facebook, Netflix and Apple haven't been especially loud in their support, but the rules would have benefited them competitively, so they were happy about that.

Who wants to tear them down?

On the other side of the debate are the big cable and phone companies and Republicans such as Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee. The two Republicans who were on the FCC when the rules passed also oppose the rules. Pai, who was a commissioner when the rules passed, became chairman of the FCC under the Trump administration.

Why have the rules been controversial?

Opponents of the rules think the FCC's stricter approach to privacy puts broadband and wireless companies at a disadvantage, especially with online advertisers. Google and Facebook, the giants of online advertising, are subject to looser requirements under the FTC. Critics want the FCC to adopt rules that are in line with the FTC's approach.

What's the difference between FCC and FTC approaches to privacy?

The main difference is in how consumers give consent to have their information shared. Under the FCC rules, consumers would have to opt in to have their personal information shared with marketers. The FTC model only requires that companies provide a way to opt out of having their personal information shared with third parties.

What's next?

Once Trump signs the legislation, the rules will no longer be on the books. And because the Congressional Review Act prohibits the FCC from adopting similar rules in the future, the agency won't be able to draft new rules to provide these protections.

In addition, it's possible that Congress or the FCC will undo net neutrality regulations and return broadband to its previous classification, which would put the FTC back in charge of broadband privacy.

Democrats say they will continue to fight for online consumer-privacy protections. Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat, said he plans to "introduce legislation that directs the FCC to reinstate strong broadband privacy rules."

Of course, since the Democrats don't control Congress or the White House, it's unlikely they can get the legislation passed.

Can I do anything to keep my ISP from collecting and selling my info?

You can try to opt out of having your data collected and shared. But don't expect broadband companies to make it easy for you.

Your other option is to download VPN software from a company like AnchorFree. VPNs, or virtual private networks, provide an alternative route for your online traffic that is hidden from your broadband provider. However, wireless companies are still able to track your location. And the VPN technology can often result in slower access to applications or sites, which may frustrate users. There's also a chance that certain applications, like Netflix, will block your connection because it doesn't allow VPN access.

Watch this: VPN explained: A privacy primer -- with robots and race cars

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