Blackburn Touts Proposed Privacy Legislation At Congressional Hearing

Tennessee lawmaker Marsha Blackburn touted her proposed privacy legislation Wednesday morning at a congressional hearing.

"The BROWSER Act is a comprehensive, bipartisan privacy bill that will give Americans seamless protection across all their electronic communications," the GOP lawmaker said in her opening statement at the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology's hearing on broadband privacy.

The bill, introduced last year, would require broadband access providers like Comcast and Verizon, as well as so-called "edge" providers like Google and Facebook, to obtain people's opt-in consent before using any of their online browsing data for ad targeting.

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Blackburn introduced the measure several weeks after Congress repealed the Federal Communications Commission's broadband privacy rules, which would have required broadband access providers to obtain affirmative consent before using browsing data for targeting. The FCC's rules wouldn't have applied to edge providers, because the FCC lacks authority over those companies' privacy practices.

Blackburn reiterated Wednesday that she wants to see "broad privacy legislation" that would apply to all online companies.

In her opening statement, she called attention to voice calls made through smartphones. Blackburn noted that calls currently made over the public telecommunications network are protected by the FCC's tough privacy rules, but some calls made through voice-based apps are not protected by the same rules.

"Both calls are conveying the same information, but the consumer’s information in the second scenario is not protected in the same manner as in the first scenario," she stated. "This leads to a problem where consumers do not have the same privacy protections when using the same device for essentially the same purpose."

The ad industry oppose Blackburn's bill last year, arguing that it goes too far. ANA Executive Vice President Dan Jaffe said last year that a great deal of online browsing data isn't "sensitive" enough to warrant the proposed restrictions.

At the hearing, Hance Haney, a senior fellow at the conservative think tank Discovery Institute, opposed the idea that broadband providers or "edge" providers should be required to obtain opt-in consent from consumers to use their data for advertising.

"Consumers benefit from the use of information that companies see and collect in the course of serving their customers, as companies like Google have demonstrated. Advertising underwrites the cost of services that Google offers for free to the public, and there’s no reason that advertising couldn’t help offset the cost that broadband providers incur in offering broadband service," he said in his written testimony. He added that the FCC's repealed privacy rules "would have foreclosed this possibility by requiring broadband providers to obtain opt-in approval to use customer data in the same manner as Google."

He also testified that consumers "would probably suffer from 'opt-in fatigue'" if, for instance, Uber continually asked for permission to access location data.

But Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vermont) suggested that he favors requiring companies to obtain consumers' opt-in consent before collecting their data. "I'd feel more empowered if it was the opt-in approach," he said.

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