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U.S. Senate votes to allow internet service providers to sell your private data

Why it matters to you

If the rules are revoked, internet service providers may have the ability to sell your private data to anyone.

In October, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) established broadband privacy rules that require internet service providers (ISPs) to obtain consent from subscribers before selling their private data to third-party advertisers. However, on Thursday, the U.S. Senate voted to eliminate those rules under the Congressional Review Act of 1996, a law giving Congress the right to repeal federal regulations.

The vote was essentially the Republican party versus the Democratic party, with the Republicans winning the vote, 50 to 48. Note that the Republican party now controls Congress and is now the majority party in the FCC. The FCC created its broadband privacy rules under the leadership of the Obama administration.

To officially kill the FCC’s privacy rules, the House of Representatives, which is also controlled by the Republican party, will need to conduct a separate vote. The House could vote against canceling those rules and President Donald Trump could elect to veto any final decision killing the privacy rules. But if Trump and the House are on board with the Senate, ISPs may soon be allowed to sell your information.

“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,” stated Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.). “The American public wants us to strengthen privacy protections, not weaken them.”

The movement to kill the FCC’s privacy rules began with Senator Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) in early March. Serving as the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law, he called the FCC’s rules “overreaching internet regulation.” According to Flake, his resolution (PDF) seeks to prevent the FCC from expanding its regulatory jurisdiction and impose data restrictions on ISPs, not to lessen existing consumer privacy regulations.

“The FCC’s midnight regulation does nothing to protect consumer privacy. It is unnecessary, confusing and adds yet another innovation-stifling regulation to the internet,” Flake said. “My resolution is the first step toward restoring the FTC’s light-touch, consumer-friendly approach.”

The resolution proposed by Flake says nothing about protecting consumer privacy. Instead, it’s a two-page document shooting down the FCC’s rules. For now, there appears to be nothing preventing ISPs from banking loads of cash by selling customer data to third parties.

Senator Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said that ISPs sit on a valuable gold mine of data. For instance, they know when subscribers wake up based on their device activity. They also know subscriber interests, habits, and even how they are generally feeling. In fact, ISPs likely know more about a subscriber’s current health status than the family physician.

“The Republican war on the free and open internet has arrived,” Markey added.