Trump Signs Bill Eliminating Internet Service Provider Privacy Rules

U.S. President Donald Trump April 3 signed a bill into law nullifying a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rule issued in October 2016, near the end of President Barack Obama’s second term, that would have prevented Internet service providers (ISPs) from selling the online browsing history of their customers.

The U.S. House of Representatives March 28 had voted, 215–205, with no Democratic support, to pass the bill. Days earlier, the U.S. Senate March 23 voted, 50–48, to overturn the FCC rule, with all the Republicans present voting in favor of scrapping the regulation and every Senate Democrat and Independent voting against it.

Privacy advocates decried the legislation, arguing that it allowed ISPs to use or sell sensitive personal data about the online habits of their customers, including financial and health information, along with their online correspondence. With the FCC rule blocked from taking effect, ISPs would not be required to obtain customer permission before either selling that information to advertisers, who could use it to create highly targeted advertisements, or using it internally for marketing purposes.

Opponents of the FCC regulation, which included Republicans and the telecommunications industry, had criticized it for unfairly imposing privacy rules on ISPs while allowing other Internet services, such as Internet giant Alphabet Inc.’s Google and the social network Facebook, to track the online behavior of Internet users without first asking for permission. The newly installed FCC chair, Republican Ajit Pai, and other Republican commissioners had advocated for broadband privacy policy to be developed and enforced not by the FCC but by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which already oversaw such policies for Internet companies like Google and Facebook.

However, privacy advocates argued that ISPs gathered a much broader range of information on users than any other Internet services did. In addition, Democrats and some industry regulators said that because there were only a few ISPs available to consumers in a particular market, the lack of options made government oversight of the industry even more necessary. The major ISPs in the U.S. were AT&T Inc., Comcast Corp. and Verizon Communications Inc.

The new law was roundly criticized as an attack on U.S. Internet users’ privacy protections. “Overwhelmingly, the American people do not agree with Republicans that this information should be sold, and it certainly should not be sold without your permission,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D, California).

The legislation was part of wider efforts by the Republican Party to undo a slew of regulations issued during Obama’s presidency. Consumer advocates had expressed concerns that Republicans would also attempt to eliminate regulations promoting so-called net neutrality — the principle that telecommunications companies or ISPs should treat all information traveling over their networks equally.