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Senate votes to kill broadband privacy rules

Lawmakers invoke the Congressional Review Act to kill controversial privacy rules adopted by the previous Federal Communications Commission.

Consumer groups say the vote is another sign that the Republican-led FCC is more focused on helping big companies than protecting consumers.
Marguerite Reardon/CNET

The Senate voted Thursday to approve a measure that could make it easier for broadband providers to sell private information about you to marketers.

In a 50-48 vote, lawmakers approved a joint resolution from Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, that uses the Congressional Review Act to prevent privacy rules passed by the Federal Communications Commission last year from taking effect.

The resolution also would prevent the FCC from enacting similar consumer protections in the future. The measure must now be voted on in the House of Representatives.

The rules, which were adopted in October under a Democrat-controlled FCC, would require broadband providers to explicitly ask consumers' permission before sharing their sensitive information, such as web browsing history, app usage or location with third parties like advertisers. This is a more stringent privacy requirement than internet companies must follow. Internet companies are subject to regulations from the Federal Trade Commission, which only require they offer consumers the opportunity to opt out of such data sharing.

Proponents of the rules, like consumer advocacy groups, argue that the rules protect your privacy, while internet service providers say the regulations are too strict and unfairly single out broadband providers giving an advantage to companies like Facebook or Google.

The fight over how broadband providers should handle personal data comes as broadband companies look to expand their businesses and offer marketers more targeted advertising. The nation's largest broadband companies -- AT&T, Comcast and Verizon -- have each made acquisitions in an effort to build their digital content holdings, making them not only the companies that provide a broadband pipe into your home, but also companies whose own content rides that network. Consumer advocates worry that broadband providers may abuse their power.

Industry groups that have opposed the privacy rules applauded the vote.

"Our industry remains committed to offering services that protect the privacy and security of the personal information of our customers," the cable trade group NCTA--The Internet and Television Association, said in a statement. "We support this step toward reversing the FCC's misguided approach and look forward to restoring a consistent approach to online privacy protection that consumers want and deserve."

But consumer groups said this was another sign that the newly Republican-led FCC is more focused on helping big companies rather than protecting consumers.

"This vote is a clear sign that American interests come second to those of broadband providers," Dallas Harris, policy fellow at Public Knowledge said in a statement. " In a world where everything is increasingly digital, now there will be no rules preventing ISPs from selling your web browsing history without your permission -- covering everything from the apps you use to your smarthome devices."

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who voted against the rules when he was a commissioner before being appointed as 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 the rules could be assessed.

But now if this resolution passes the House, there may be no need for further action by the FCC.

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