District Of Columbia Council Urged To Move Forward With Broadband Privacy Bill

A coalition of privacy advocates are urging lawmakers in the District of Columbia to move forward with a proposed law to impose new restrictions on Internet service providers.

The Broadband Internet Privacy Act of 2017 (B22-0403) largely aims to restore the Federal Communications Commission's former privacy rules, which were repealed earlier this year by Congress. Those rules required providers to obtain people's opt-in consent before drawing on their web-browsing history or app usage to serve them ads.

"District of Columbia residents should be entitled to a reasonable expectation of privacy in the data ISPs collect to provide internet service given they often pay well over $100 per month to an ISP," the ACLU of the District of Columbia, Center for Democracy & Technology, Center for Digital Democracy, Open Technology Institute and other groups write in a letter sent this week to Kenyan McDuffie, chairman of the committee on business and economic development for the Council of the District of Columbia. "Just as we do not expect a cell carrier to listen to our phone calls, we should not expect them to watch and sell our web browsing and app usage history."

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The groups are asking the Council to hold a public hearing on the bill.

The letter comes just days after lawmakers in California shelved a closely watched bill that also would have recreated the FCC's former regulations. The California measure would have gone even further by also prohibiting providers from charging higher fees to people who didn't opt in to online tracking.

A large majority of the public appears to support privacy rules requiring broadband carriers to obtain users' opt-in consent before drawing on their web-browsing data for ad targeting. In April, a survey by Huffington Post and YouGov reportedly showed that more than 70% of Republicans and Democrats wanted President Donald Trump to veto a repeal of the privacy rules.

More recently, a July survey by Freedman Consulting found that 83% of Americans oppose broadband providers selling information about their online activities without first asking for permission.

After the FCC's nationwide rules were repealed, broadband privacy legislation was introduced in at least 20 states, two cities (Seattle and Washington, D.C.) and two municipalities in Pennsylvania. To date, Seattle appears to be the only local entity to have passed a broadband privacy bill.

The Association of National Advertisers, along with tech companies and broadband carriers, lobbied vigorously against the California bill. The ANA said Monday that the bill's failure to pass marked "a major victory for advertisers in California and across the country."

The group added that enactment "would have created broad adverse precedents and started a domino effect of other states passing similar bills."

ANA executive vice president Dan Jaffe says the organization plans to also oppose the D.C. bill. He says that states and cities shouldn't be regulating businesses "that are clearly national."

"The Internet is not D.C. located," he says. "It's not Seattle located."

The ANA, like other groups that opposed the FCC's rules, argues that a great deal of web-browsing behavior isn't "sensitive" enough to warrant an opt-in consent regime. Opponents also argue that ISPs shouldn't be subject to tougher rules than companies like Google, Facebook and ad networks.  Those companies often target ads on an opt-out basis, meaning that they use people's web-browsing activity for ad purposes unless they explicitly opt out of behavioral targeting.

But privacy advocates argue that broadband providers should obtain people's explicit permission before tracking them for several reasons, including that ISPs have access to all unencrypted sites visited by customers and can therefore capture comprehensive data about them.

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