Despite a last-minute effort by consumer advocates, the Senate today formally voted 50-48 (vote breakdown here) to dismantle the FCC's privacy protections for broadband subscribers. Congress had been fast-tracking the push to kill the rules, knowing the vote would likely be obscured by the debate over the Affordable Care Act. The vote leaned on the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to dismantle recently-passed regulations with a simple majority. Such a vote also bans similar rules from being reintroduced at a later date.
The rules were crafted last year by the FCC, and simply required that ISPs clearly disclose what personal data is collected, who it's sold to, and that ISPs provide working opt out tools. It also required that consumers opt in to more sensitive data collection and sales, including user financial data, or your browsing history.
Giant ISPs had also argued that killing the rules would bring greater "efficiency" to regulation by letting the FTC tackle privacy issues. Former FCC boss Tom Wheeler recently stated in an interview that this was simply a ploy to ensure less company oversight, since the FTC is already under-funded, and over-extended as it tries to oversee multiple industries. There's also rumblings that the GOP hopes to push legislation eroding the FTC's consumer protection authority as well, leaving one of the least competitive industries in America with little to no oversight whatsoever.
"It’s a fraud," Wheeler recently said. "The FTC doesn’t have rule-making authority. They’ve got enforcement authority and their enforcement authority is whether or not something is unfair or deceptive. And the FTC has to worry about everything from computer chips to bleach labeling. Of course, carriers want [telecom issues] to get lost in that morass. This was the strategy all along."
The FCC pursued broadband privacy rules after companies like Verizon got caught covertly modifying packets to track users around the internet, and companies like AT&T and Comcast began exploring forcing users to pay more for privacy. Other ISPs, like CableOne, have crowed about using financial data to provide poor customers with even worse customer service. Again, the lack of competition dampens the repercussions for this kind of behavior, none of which the FTC responded to (precisely the way the industry likes it).
"This resolution is a direct attack on consumer rights, on privacy, on rules that afford basic protection against intrusive and illegal interference with consumers' use of social media sites and websites that often they talk for granted,” Senator Richard Blumenthal said before the vote.
Consumer advocates were also unsurprisingly critical of Congress' rush to do the bidding of giant telecom conglomerates.
“With less than 10 hours of ‘consideration,’ the Senate took the first step to eliminating a rule that put consumers in control of their data online," noted Public Knowledge in a statement. "This vote is a clear sign that American interests come second to those of broadband providers. In a world where everything is increasingly digital, now there will be no rules preventing ISPs from selling your web browsing history without your permission -- covering everything from the apps you use to your smarthome devices."
Again, you can find a full voting breakdown here, in case you're the type interested in lawmaker accountability.