Commentary

Senate Democrats Urge FCC To Preserve Broadband Privacy Rules

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai's recent move to roll back broadband privacy rules will leave subscribers more vulnerable to hackers.

That's according to Democratic Sens. Ed Markey (Massachusetts), Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts), Al Franken (Minnesota) and Richard Blumenthal (Connecticut), who wrote to Pai today to voice concern over his plan to halt a rule requiring broadband providers to take reasonable measures to keep consumers' information secure.

"Your proposal comes despite the mounting number of data breaches impacting consumers throughout the country," the lawmakers write. "We oppose your efforts and believe it would make subscribers' sensitive information more vulnerable to breaches and unauthorized use."

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The lawmakers' letter comes several days after Pai said he would move to stay a new data-security rule -- one of several broadband privacy protections passed by the FCC last October under the leadership of former Chairman Tom Wheeler. The data-security rule in itself wasn't especially controversial, and was seen as aligned with longstanding principles of the Federal Trade Commission -- which has traditionally policed online privacy and security.

Pai has made no secret of his aim to also roll back the other new privacy rules, including controversial regulations that prohibit ISPs from drawing on subscribers' Web surfing history or their app usage for ad targeting, without their express consent.

The ad industry, broadband providers and other critics of those rules, argue that they're inconsistent with looser standards put out by the FTC, which recommends that Web companies should obtain people's explicit consent before sharing "sensitive" data -- like health information, precise location data and the "content" of their communications, including social media posts and search queries -- with outside companies. But the FTC also recommends that Web companies allow people to opt out of the collection and sharing of non-sensitive data.

Earlier today, the Data & Marketing Association reiterated its opposition to those "overly restrictive" rules, stating they "would only disrupt the system that fuels the digital economy and supports much of the content and services consumers enjoy and benefit from in their daily lives."

But the lawmakers tell Pai there are good reasons to subject broadband providers to stringent privacy requirements.

Broadband carriers "serve as gatekeepers that control the infrastructure that Americans depend on to access vital applications and services," the senators write.

"ISPs can use this privileged position to collect, use, and share sensitive information about subscribers' finances, religious affiliations, family and numerous other pieces of personal data by mining their web and app usage history and geolocation," Markey and the others say, adding: "Yet, many consumers have limited choice for broadband service and cannot necessarily change ISPs if their privacy protections are not transparent or robust."

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