US Net service providers free to sell user data in rule reversal

Congress vote removes the need to obtain consumer consent

WASHINGTON • United States lawmakers have voted to roll back rules that would block Internet service providers from selling user data to third parties, following a heated debate over privacy protections.

The White House said that President Donald Trump strongly supports the repeal of the rules approved by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under then President Barack Obama.

Under the rules, Internet service providers would need to obtain consumer consent before using precise geolocation, financial information, health information, children's information and Web browsing history for advertising and marketing.

Last week, the Senate voted 50-48 to reverse the rules in a win for AT&T, Comcast and Verizon Communications. The White House said Internet service providers would need to obtain affirmative opt-in consent from consumers to use and share certain information, but noted that websites are not required to get the same consent.

"This results in rules that apply very different regulatory regimes based on the identity of the online actor," the White House said. Websites are governed by a less restrictive set of rules overseen by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Some activists say the latest vote frees major providers like Comcast and Verizon to sell sensitive private data for targeted advertising, while others contend these firms will now be able to compete on an equal footing with Internet giants like Google and Facebook for online marketing.

FCC chairman Ajit Pai praised the decision of Congress to overturn "privacy regulations designed to benefit one group of favoured companies over another group of disfavoured companies".

Some activists say the latest vote frees major providers like Comcast and Verizon to sell sensitive private data for targeted advertising, while others contend these firms will now be able to compete on an equal footing with Internet giants like Google and Facebook for online marketing.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes the measure, said companies "should not be able to use and sell the sensitive data they collect from you without your permission". An Internet and Television Association statement called the repeal "an important step towards restoring consumer privacy protections that apply consistently".

One critic of the repeal, Mr Craig Aaron, president of Free Press advocacy group, said major Silicon Valley firms shied away from the fight over the rules because they profit from consumer data.

Republican commissioners, including Mr Pai, said in October that the rules would unfairly give websites like Facebook, Twitter or Google the ability to harvest more data than Internet service providers and thus further dominate digital advertising.

"Moving forward, I want the American people to know that the FCC will work with the FTC to ensure that consumers' online privacy is protected though a consistent and comprehensive framework," Mr Pai said.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 30, 2017, with the headline 'US Net service providers free to sell user data in rule reversal'. Print Edition | Subscribe