Ad Industry, Broadband Carriers Cheer Senate Vote To Scrap Privacy Rules

Ad groups and Internet service providers are celebrating today's Senate vote to scrap broadband privacy rules that could restrict carriers' ability to engage in online behavioral advertising.

“This is an important victory for all who benefit from the data-driven marketing economy, including tens of thousands of businesses and nonprofit organizations and hundreds of millions of consumers," Data & Marketing Association Senior Vice President Emmett O'Keefe said today in a statement.

The 21st Century Privacy Coalition -- headed by former Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz and former Republican congresswoman Mary Bono from California, and funded by cable and telecom companies -- also praised the Senate vote. "Consumers and innovation will benefit from the Administration having the opportunity to hit the reset button and develop a comprehensive approach to consumer online privacy," Bono stated.

The sweeping rules, passed by the Federal Communications Commission last October, require broadband carriers to obtain consumers' opt-in consent before drawing on their Web-browsing data or app usage history for ad targeting.

The Senate voted 50-48 to issue a resolution of disapproval under the Congressional Review Act -- a 1996 measure that allows federal lawmakers to repeal recent agency decisions. The House could vote on a similar measure next week. If President Donald Trump signs the measure, the FCC won't be able to pass broadband privacy rules in the future.

Broadband carriers and the ad industry argue that the opt-in consent requirement isn't fair to carriers, given that many other companies -- including search engines, social networking services and ad networks -- draw on a good deal of Web-browsing data on an opt-out basis.

But consumer advocates say broadband carriers aren't comparable to search engines, ad networks or other online companies. One reason is that broadband carriers can glean detailed knowledge about subscribers' online activity by examining all unencrypted traffic that passes through their networks; another is that consumers often don't have many options about which carrier to use for broadband access.

The Federal Trade Commission -- which lacks jurisdiction over broadband providers and other common carriers -- broadly recommends that Web companies allow people to opt out of the collection and sharing of non-sensitive data. The FTC also suggests that companies should obtain opt-in consent before sharing a narrow category of "sensitive" data -- including health information and precise location data.

Privacy advocates widely condemned this afternoon's Senate vote. "The information ISPs have about their customers includes web browsing and video viewing habits, religious information, sexual preferences, health conditions, and location," Center for Democracy & Technology policy analyst Natasha Duarte stated. "These are some of the most intimate details about people's lives, and customers should have control over how companies can use and share this information."

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is urging people to express opposition to the measure by calling their House representatives, says ISPs "shouldn’t be able to profit off of the information about what you search for, read about, purchase, and more without your consent."

"Americans lost a crucial right today as the GOP-controlled Senate voted to overturn the only federal protection that could have protected their privacy online," Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy said in an email.

Earlier this year, a group of broadband carriers promised the FCC that they would follow the privacy standards set out by the FTC. The carriers said they will allow subscribers to opt out of the use of "non-sensitive" Web-surfing data for ad targeting purposes, and obtain people's opt-in consent before drawing on a limited category of "sensitive" data, including precise geolocation information, financial account numbers and some types of health data.

Whether the ISPs intend to keep that promise if the rules are repealed by Congress remains unknown.

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