Senate takes up broadband privacy repeal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate on Wednesday took up a measure to repeal regulations adopted by the Obama administration requiring internet service providers to do more to protect customers’ privacy than websites like Alphabet Inc’s Google or Facebook Inc.

FILE PHOTO - An illustration picture shows a network cable next to a pack of smartphones in Berlin, June 7, 2013. REUTERS/Pawel Kopczynski

The Senate began debate on Wednesday evening under a provision that allows Congress to repeal recently approved federal regulations.

Under the rules approved by the Federal Communications Commission in October under then-President Barack Obama, internet providers would need to obtain consumer consent before using precise geolocation, financial information, health information, children’s information and web browsing history for advertising and internal marketing.

Earlier this month, the FCC temporarily blocked those rules from taking effect, a victory for internet providers such as AT&T Inc Comcast Corp and Verizon Communications Inc that had strongly opposed the measure.

A final Senate vote on the measure is expected on Thursday, but it was not clear when the U.S. House of Representatives might take up the measure.

“Congress needs to repeal these privacy restrictions in order to restore balance to the internet ecosystem and provide certainty to consumers,” said Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican who sponsored the measure.

But Democratic Senator Bill Nelson said that broadband providers build profiles “about our children from birth. This is a gold mine of data – the holy grail so to speak. It is no wonder that broadband providers want to be able to sell this information to the highest bidder without consumers’ knowledge or consent. And they want to collect and use this information without providing transparency or being held accountable.”

The American Civil Liberties Union also criticized the proposal to undo the rules.

“With this move, Congress is essentially allowing companies like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon to sell consumers’ private information to the highest bidder,” ACLU general counsel Neema Singh Guliani said earlier this month.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, nominated by Republican President Donald Trump to serve a second five-year term on the commission, said earlier this month that consumers would have privacy protections even without the Obama administration internet provider rules.

Republican commissioners, including Pai, said in October that the rules would unfairly give websites like Facebook, Twitter Inc or Google the ability to harvest more data than internet service providers and thus dominate digital advertising.

Websites are governed by a less restrictive set of privacy rules overseen by the Federal Trade Commission.

Democratic Senator Edward Markey said “just as phone companies cannot sell information about Americans’ phone calls, an internet service provider should not be allowed to sell sensitive consumer information without affirmative consent.”

Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Chris Reese and Jonathan Oatis