Congress votes to wipe out landmark internet privacy protections

Congress sent proposed legislation to President Donald Trump on Tuesday that wipes away landmark online privacy protections, the first salvo in what is likely to become a significant reworking of the rules governing internet access in an era of Republican dominance.

In a party-line vote, House Republicans freed internet service providers such as Verizon, AT&T and Comcast of protections approved just last year that had sought to limit what companies could do with information such as customer browsing habits, app usage history, location data and Social Security numbers. The rules had also required providers to strengthen safeguards for customer data against hackers and thieves.

The Senate has already voted to nullify those measures, which were set to take effect at the end of this year. If Trump signs the legislation, as expected, providers will be able to monitor their customers’ behavior online and, without their permission, use their personal and financial information to sell highly targeted ads — making them rivals to Google and Facebook in the $83 billion online advertising market.

The providers could also sell their users’ information directly to marketers, financial firms and other companies that mine personal data — all of whom could use the data without consumers’ consent. In addition, the Federal Communications Commission, which initially drafted the protections, will be forbidden from issuing similar rules in the future.

Search engines and streaming video sites already collect usage data on consumers. But consumer activists claim that internet providers may know much more about a person’s activities because they can see all of the sites a customer visits.

And while consumers can easily abandon sites whose privacy practices they don’t agree with, it is far more difficult to choose a different internet provider, the activists said. Many Americans have a choice of only one or two broadband companies in their area, according to federal statistics.

Advocates for tough privacy protections online called Tuesday’s vote “a tremendous setback for America.”

“Today’s vote means that Americans will never be safe online from having their most personal details stealthily scrutinized and sold to the highest bidder,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.

Read More