House pulls the plug on internet privacy rules

Consumer advocates say this means broadband providers will sell your browsing history to the highest bidder. Industry groups say it preserves competition.

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
3 min read
Watch this: What the repeal of internet privacy rules means to you

Broadband providers won't have to get your permission before sharing your web browsing history and other personal data with marketers thanks to a vote Tuesday on Capitol Hill.

Republicans in the US House of Representatives approved a resolution that prevents privacy rules passed by the FCC last year from taking effect. The vote was 215 in favor and 205 opposing the measure.

The Senate voted on Thursday to adopt the resolution to nullify the rules. All that's left now is for President Donald Trump to sign the order. Earlier Tuesday, the White House said he plans to sign it.

This will essentially repeal the Obama-era regulation passed in October days before Trump was elected. These rules would have required broadband companies to get their customers' permission before they sell "sensitive" information about their web browsing activity, app usage or whereabouts to marketers. Because Republicans used the Congressional Review Act -- a tool that enables lawmakers to expedite bills to reverse recent regulations -- it also prohibits the Federal Communications Commission from adopting similar rules in the future.

Why should you care?

Proponents of the rules, like consumer advocacy groups, say this is bad news because the rules protect your privacy. Without these regulations, these groups say that broadband providers will be able to sell information about where you've been online, what you're buying, the apps you're using, and where you're located to marketers and other third parties, like insurance companies.

"ISPs like Comcast, AT&T and Charter will be free to sell your personal information to the highest bidder without your permission -- and no one will be able to protect you," Gigi Sohn, an adviser to former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, wrote in an op-ed Tuesday. Wheeler championed the privacy rules.


The vote Tuesday in the House fell along party lines.

Marguerite Reardon/CNET

Meanwhile, internet service providers say the regulations are too strict and unfairly single out broadband providers, because they require broadband companies to adhere to a more stringent privacy requirement than internet companies must follow. They say the rules are burdensome and will stifle competition, driving up prices.

"The FCC's flawed broadband privacy rules will have a chilling effect on internet innovation and competition," said Gary Shapiro, head of the Consumer Technology Association.

Instead, these groups say that broadband companies should follow the same privacy guidelines as internet companies, like Facebook and Google. They follow rules established by the Federal Trade Communication, which only requires companies offer consumers the opportunity to opt out of such data sharing. Industry groups argue having two sets of rules gives internet companies a competitive leg up.

For broadband companies the stakes are high. These companies are looking to expand their businesses and offer marketers more targeted advertising, and they want to use the personal information they collect from their customers to do it. The nation's largest broadband companies -- AT&T, Comcast and Verizon -- have each made acquisitions in an effort to build their digital content holdings. That makes them not only the companies that provide a broadband pipe into your home, but also ones whose own content rides that network.

The vote, which has been highly politicized, fell along party lines. It's part of a GOP effort to eliminate several regulations issued during President Barack Obama's final months in office. And it comes just days after Trump's plan to repeal and replace Obama's health care law failed. Trump has already signed several resolutions under the Congressional Review Act to repeal regulations, including two related to education and one concerning the environment.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who voted against the rules when he was a commissioner before being appointed chairman in January, had already put the brakes on the rollout of the rules. In February, the FCC voted to hold off implementing the rules until challenges to them could be assessed.

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Correction 4:22 pm PT: An earlier version of the story misstated the final vote count.