Senate Republicans on Thursday voted along party lines to gut the FCC’s broadband privacy regulations. The resolution will now proceed to the House, where it is also expected to pass.
The Federal Communications Commission regulations, which came into effect in October, barred internet service providers from selling their subscribers internet browsing histories—without consent—to third parties, a rule GOP lawmakers have painted as overly restrictive and innovation-stifling.
To kill the regulation, Republicans made use of the Congressional Review Act, which allows the Senate to strike down rules recently passed by federal agencies. The measure effectively gives ISPs permission to collect, sell, and share information about their customers’ browsing habits—along with other sensitive data—to advertisers and other third parties.
The broadband rules, implemented by Democrat Tom Wheeler, the former FCC chairman, would have required ISPs to report data breaches that put their customers at risk. The regulation would have also required companies, such as Comcast and AT&T, to alert the Federal Bureau of Investigation within a week of detecting such breaches. To the applause of GOP lawmakers, the FCC’s newly-appointed chairman, Republican Ajit Pai, halted implementation of those rules at the beginning of the month.
“President Trump may be outraged by fake violations of his own privacy, but every American should be alarmed by the very real violation of privacy that will result of the Republican roll-back of broadband privacy protections,” Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) said in a statement, sharply condemning what he called a “Republican war on the free and open internet.”
“With today’s vote, Senate Republicans have just made it easier for American’s sensitive information about their health, finances, and families to be used, shared, and sold to the highest bidder without their permission,” Sen. Markey continued. “The American public wants us to strengthen privacy protections, not weaken them. We should not have to forgo our fundamental right to privacy just because our homes and phones are connected to the internet.”
The vote also came under fire by Fight for the Future, a prominent digital rights group which has for years combatted efforts in Congress to relax online privacy regulations. “Today, 50 members of the U.S. Senate voted to sell their constituents’ most personal information to the highest bidder,” said Evan Greer, the group’s campaign director. “They used a blatantly undemocratic Congressional procedure to gut basic protections that prevent Internet Service Providers like Comcast and Verizon from selling their customers’ personal information to marketers without their permission.”
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who introduced the resolution alongside 23 other Republican senators, praised the vote’s outcome, referring to the FCC rules as a “midnight regulation,” even though they were passed some five months ago.
“The FCC’s midnight regulation has the potential to limit consumer choice, stifle innovation, and jeopardize data security by destabilizing the internet ecosystem,” said Flake. “Passing my resolution is the first step toward restoring a consumer-friendly approach to internet privacy regulation that empowers consumers to make informed choices on if and how their data can be shared. It will not change or lessen existing consumer privacy protections.”
Before the privacy regulations can be entirely reversed, Sen. Flake’s resolution must pass a House vote and then receive the signature of President Trump—who could veto it, if he wanted to.