By Aya Elamroussi
WASHINGTON— The Rules Committee voted Monday for the House floor to adopt a resolution that would allow Internet service providers to take, share and sell consumers’ web browsing history without their permission.
If the House of Representatives passes the resolution, an Obama-era Federal Communication Commission rule would be overturned that requires providers to obtain costumers’ permission before sharing their browsing information with third parties. The rules also require internet providers to protect consumers’ data from hackers and inform consumers if data has been stolen.
The Committee heard testimonies from Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), who supported the resolution, and Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA), who opposed it.
Blackburn said the current FCC rule presents three problems. The first is that it is the Federal Trade Commission’s role to oversee online privacy regulations.
“The FCC unilaterally swiped jurisdiction from the Federal Trade Commission,” Blackburn said. “The FTC has served as our nation’s sole online privacy regulator for over 20 years.”
Having two different “privacy cops” would create confusion in the Internet ecosystem and harm consumers, because confusion on compliance can lead to less regulation, and in turn, less protection for consumers, Blackburn said.
The third problem Blackburn pointed out is that the FCC already has the authority it needs to enforce privacy obligations of broadband service providers on a case-by-case basis.
Blackburn said the current rule is an overreach by the FCC that must be rolled back.
But rolling back the current rule means that consumers no longer have the freedom to decide how to control their own information, Doyle said. ISPs can share that information with third party companies without seeking permission from Internet users.
Broadband companies have an obligation not to dive into the personal lives of Americans unless that’s what those Americans want them to do, Doyle said.
“By analyzing internet usage, these companies will know more about you than members of your own family, more than you would tell your doctor, more than you know about yourself,” Doyle said. “And without these rules, these companies don’t have to ask before selling all that information.”
Critics of the current rule argue the FTC should oversee online privacy rules, but the FTC has no rule-making authority, Doyle pointed out. So if Congress votes against the current rule, there aren’t other rules to provide basic protection to consumers’ privacy.
“There will be no rules for these ISPs,” Doyle said. “They can do whatever they want with your date whenever they want to do it. They don’t have to tell you.”
ISPs like Verizon, AT&T and Comcast are labeled and function as “common carriers.” That is, they are private companies that sell their services to everyone on the same terms, rather than companies that make more individualized decisions about who to serve and what to charge. Because of this type of service, FTC does not have jurisdiction over ISPs.
“They are literally free to do anything they want,” Doyle said.
But Blackburn disagrees. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has stated that he has the authority that is necessary to handle privacy enforcement, Blackburn said.
Rep. Aclee L. Hastings (D-FL), who is on the Rules Committee, asked the witnesses if ISPs could sell browsing histories to third parties if the resolution being considered becomes law.
“That’s the whole enticement here,” Doyle answered. “These companies see a new business model, and that’s collecting your data and being able to monetize that data.”
Blackburn’s response to Hasting’s questions was that if there were to be a violator of privacy laws, FCC has the authority to act according to current laws that are already in place.
While companies like Google gain access to personal data while users are using them, there are alternative search engines that share personal data with third parties, Doyle said. Also, ISPs have access to way more consumer information since they encompass everything one does on the Internet. This information ranges from passwords and browsing history to Social Security number.
“Some common sense would tell you that at the time you agreed to go to your carrier, and you trust your carrier, then the carrier is going to have to probably be forthright about what their policy is,” Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-TX) said.
“I would look at what their circumstances are,” Sessions added. “And you’re going to make me go back and reread it. So I appreciate it.”
By a record vote of 9 to 3, the House will consider to adopt the resolution Tuesday.