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Interest Groups Asks Congress to Remove Internet Privacy Rules

— March 9, 2017

Conservative interest groups and industry lobbyists are begging Congress to roll back Obama-era internet privacy rules.

The groups sent a letter to the Senate Commerce Committee on Tuesday, laying out an argument for why the regulations should be reversed. Signed by 18 groups – including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, US Telecom, and the Consumer Technology Association – the letter asks lawmakers to make use of the Congressional Review Act, or CRA.

The CRA lets Congress knock off regulations approved by government bodies, in this case the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). With President Trump’s approval, legislators can lift off restrictions on what internet service providers (ISPs) can do with “contextual consumer information.” Per the FCC, ISPs can’t use customer information for purposes of advertising or marketing with the explicit permission of consumers. The past model had been geared towards opting out and was heralded by some as being the sort of success which helped mold modern cyberspace.

Anti-FCC activists argued in their letter that, “the rule harms consumers because it creates confusion in a regulatory environment in which customer data is regulated by two different agency standards, based on whether information is used by an internet service provider or an edge provider.”

Google and other large tech companies began arguing about the FCC rules half a year ago.

Spokespersons for Google were concerned that disparate FCC and FTC regulations would create a confusing environment for broadband and edge providers alike. Targeted advertisements, as well as information sales, have traditionally formed a large portion income for Google and other search engines.

“Calls by some parties to in this proceeding to extend an opt-in consent requirement to all web browsing are unjustified,” wrote Google in a letter to the FTC. “The FTC’s framework recognizes that while U.S. consumers consider healthcare or financial transactions, for example, to be sensitive information that should receive special protection, they do not have the same expectations when they shop or get a weather forecast online.”

The tech giant argued that the FTC’s tailored approach to opting-in and opting-out was more appropriate than the sweeping regulations suggested by the Federal Communications Commission. To a certain extent, the model which Google advocates has been both wildly successful and increasingly controversial. The company defended its approach in the same letter.

An antiquated look at the growing popularity of encryption online; image courtesy of Mal Langsdon, Reuters

“Although Google and other companies take strong measures to avoid using sensitive data for purposes like targeting ads, consumers benefit from responsible online advertising, individualized content, and product improvements […] The FCC’s framework should allow such differentiation,” they wrote.

Larry Downes of Forbes made a point in an article published late in January about how ISPs are already blind to the majority of consumer traffic. E-mails, Skype calls, and even Netflix browsing sessions usually have their content encrypted, making communications impossible to monitor by internet service providers.

Consumer advocacy groups, however, have been pressing Congress to let the FCC’s regulations stand.

“Broadband ISPs, by virtue of their position as gatekeepers to everything on the Internet, have a largely unencumbered view into their customers’ online communications,” the groups said in a letter re-published by Ars Technica. “That includes the websites they visit, the videos they watch, and the messages they send. The FCC’s privacy rules “empower users and give them a say in how their private information is used.””



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