Sen. Jeff Flake, who introduced the resolution that scrapped broadband privacy rules, fielded some angry complaints Thursday night at a hostile town hall meeting.
"Now that you've rolled back the FCC's protections on our Internet privacy ... if we take up a collection here tonight, will you go ahead and sell us your Internet history?" one constituent asked as the crowd cheered.
The Republican from Arizona responded by trying to explain that he believes the Federal Trade Commission, and not the FCC, should police broadband privacy. "The Federal Trade Commission has always been the regulator," he said.
Actually, the FTC can't prosecute broadband providers because that agency lacks authority over common carriers. What's more, even if the net neutrality rules were revoked -- and broadband was no longer considered a common carrier service -- the FTC still couldn't regulate Internet service providers, thanks to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. That court said last year that the FTC has no authority over AT&T (and other companies that provide telephone service) regardless of whether broadband is classified as a common carrier service. The FTC is trying to get that decision reversed, but hasn't yet been able to do so.
Flake also criticized the substance of the FCC's regulations -- which required providers to obtain people's opt-in consent before drawing on their Web browsing history for ad purposes. The lawmaker argued that those regulations subject ISPs to tougher standards than "edge" providers like Google and Facebook.
By contrast, the FTC recommends only that Web companies allow people to opt out of the collection and sharing of most types of online browsing data. (The FTC suggests that companies obtain opt-in consent before sharing a narrow category of "sensitive" data -- including health information and precise location data.)
"What we need is uniform regulation, where everybody knows as a consumer that your privacy is protected .... based on the security and sensitivity of the data," he said.
He added that health information should be "treated differently than if you buy a pair of shoes."
An audience member challenged Flake on that point, noting that Internet service providers are fundamentally different from online publishers, search engines and social networks.
"You keep talking about having a level playing field and having the same regulations for edge providers and for Internet service providers," the constituent said. "If somebody is collecting data, I don't have to have them as my edge provider. But I have a lot less choice about who my Internet service provider is."
"My Internet service provider sees everything," he added. "Google only sees a small portion."
Flake said he disagreed. "Moving forward, you can't say we're going to regulate ISPs one way and edge providers another," he told the crowd.
Flake isn't the only Republican dealing with voters who are unhappy about the broadband privacy repeal. A constituent in Wisconsin also recently raised concerns about the issue with Rep. Jim Sensebrenner, a Republican House member from that state.
He responded by saying, "You know, nobody's got to use the Internet."
For their part, state lawmakers seem to have taken note of the negative reaction to the repeal of the federal privacy regulations. At least 10 states are reportedly considering new laws aimed at protecting the privacy of Internet users.