Government & Politics

Congress guts internet rule on privacy, giving providers right to snoop for data

Rep. Kevin Yoder of Johnson County was one of only 15 Republicans to vote against a bill that would let internet service providers snoop on users without their consent and sell the data to marketers.
Rep. Kevin Yoder of Johnson County was one of only 15 Republicans to vote against a bill that would let internet service providers snoop on users without their consent and sell the data to marketers. The Associated Press

The Republican-controlled Congress on Tuesday passed a bill that would empower internet service providers to snoop on users without their consent and sell the data to marketers.

President Donald Trump is expected to sign the measure.

Republican proponents of the measure hailed it as a way to level the playing field for broadband companies like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon and give them a leg up against content companies like Google and Facebook.

Democratic opponents said the measure would allow broadband companies to monitor all aspects of daily computer usage and reap profits by selling intimate data to advertisers.

Internet security experts also predicted a wide range of other potential effects, from lenders using data to act on loan applications to criminals finding a sweet new collection of data to hack.

“We believe today’s misguided vote will unleash even more ‘Big Data’ profiling and tracking of Americans, and spur an array of discriminatory practices,” said Katharina Kopp, policy director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a privacy organization based in Washington.

The House vote cleaved closely to party lines, passing 215 to 205. No Democrats supported it. The vote came a week after the Senate approved the measure precisely along party lines.

Rep. Kevin Yoder of Johnson County was one of only 15 Republicans to vote against the bill.

“We don’t want the government having access to our information without our consent, and the same goes for private business,” Yoder said in a statement.

“These digital privacy protections put in place by the FCC are commonsense measures similar to long-standing rules that apply to phone companies that will simply ensure internet users can continue to have control over their personal information. I don’t believe they should be repealed, and I will continue to fight for Americans’ digital privacy rights.”

Republicans favoring the rollback of Federal Communications Commission regulations, enacted in 10 days before last year’s presidential election, said the move is part of efforts to sweep away unnecessary regulation.

Rep. Michael C. Burgess, a Texas Republican, said the FCC rules were “promulgated by bureaucrats who remain unaccountable to the American people.”

Burgess, who led the House Republican debate, said broadband providers are held to a different standard than content giants like Google and Facebook, which already collect some user data, under an existing system in which the FCC and the Federal Trade Commission share aspects of regulation.

“Having two privacy cops on the beat will create confusion within the internet ecosystem,” echoed Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican.

Several Democratic lawmakers voiced anger at the proposed rollback on privacy, calling it an assault on a precious right so that corporate interests may profit.

“It is outrageous,” said Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat. “I can’t believe that a person who is a constitutional conservative would vote for a monstrosity like this.”

Blackburn dismissed concerns that consumers would have little recourse if companies fail to protect their data.

“Litigation is another avenue that consumers can pursue against ISPs for mishandling personal data,” Blackburn said.

Lindsay Wise, The Star’s Washington correspondent, contributed to this report.

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