The top Republican on a House technology committee hit back at Democrats Wednesday for failing to support tough new online privacy rules for internet providers and Silicon Valley, after those same Democrats opposed the repeal of privacy rules that favored companies like Google and Facebook earlier this year.
During a committee meeting Wednesday to discuss broadband expansion across the U.S., Democrats criticized Republicans’ agenda for ignoring more pressing issues, including replacing privacy rules for internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast and Verizon. Those rules, drafted by the FCC, would have required ISPs to get permission from subscribers before collecting and monetizing their data. Congressional Republicans voted to repeal them in March with the Congressional Review Act (CRA) before they took effect.
Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who chairs the Communications and Technology Subcommittee, hit back at her colleagues on the left for ignoring a replacement privacy bill she offered up in May. Blackburn’s bill, dubbed the BROWSER Act, would have applied those same rules to edge providers — websites like Google and Facebook, who were left unaffected by the previous rules.
“On the privacy issue, we had a very robust debate around this with the CRA process to set aside those FCC rules that had not yet been implemented and reserve the status quo on that issue,” Blackburn said. “And I will say to my colleagues I would be happy to discuss my BROWSER Act with you on the privacy issue.”
Blackburn said her office has “reached out to all the Democratic offices in the House on this issue,” and that the responses she received were “disappointing.” The Tennessee Republican read from one Democratic response asking the chairwoman to “please remove the 200 other people who have expressed no interest in engaging in this topic.”
“I do hope that my colleagues do want to engage on privacy and that indeed we can move forward on this issue this year,” Blackburn said.
The FCC privacy rules required ISPs to get opt-in consent from subscribers before collecting data on their web browsing and app usage habits. Republicans including Blackburn and FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai said those rules unfairly applied to only one half of the online ecosystem, and unfairly benefitted edge providers like Google and Facebook, already the dominant forces in the online targeted ad industry (edge providers fall under Federal Trade Commission jurisdiction and can’t be regulated by the FTC).
When Republicans repealed those rules Democrats accused lawmakers on the right including Blackburn of catering to ISPs like AT&T and Verizon, who are among her top campaign donors. But the bill the congresswoman unveiled shortly after the repeal goes beyond the FCC rules by applying the same opt-in restrictions to ISPs and edge providers, and designates the FTC — the federal regulator with the most privacy experience — as the enforcement agency for both.
Since May, Democrats have quietly doubted Republican intentions to actually advance the bill, but have offered no real criticisms of its language. Even consumer advocacy groups like Public Knowledge, which sits at the top of Washington’s pro-net neutrality lobby, says its “still evaluating this bill.”
So far the legislation has no Democratic sponsors. According to attorney Jonathan Lee, who’s represented large and small telecommunications clients before the FCC, that’s because Silicon Valley — where companies typically back Democrats — oppose the legislation.
“Ironically, to improve consumers’ privacy rights online would be for Democrats to cede the privacy issue for the election,” Lee wrote last week in his blog, which is funded in part by AT&T. “Worse still, it would put Democrats on the wrong side of their core ‘Silicon Valley’ constituency; the tech giants.”
Blackburn isn’t the only influential Republican to pitch balancing privacy enforcement. After the then-Democrat controlled FCC passed the ISP privacy rules late last year, Pai — now chairman of the FCC — pitched the same idea.
“So if the FCC truly believes that these new rules are necessary to protect consumer privacy, then the government now must move forward to ensure uniform regulation of all companies in the internet ecosystem at the new baseline the FCC has set,” Pai said after the vote last year. “That means the ball is now squarely in the FTC’s court. The FTC could return us to a level playing field by changing its sensitivity-based approach to privacy to mirror the FCC’s.”
In an op-ed penned with Pai, acting FTC Chairwoman Maureen Ohlhausen agreed on the need for balance.
“If two online companies have access to the same data about your Internet usage, why should the federal government give one company greater leeway to use it than the other,” they wrote in The Washington Post.