On Monday, President Donald Trump signed a repeal of online privacy rules that would have limited the ability of ISPs to share or sell customers’ browsing history for advertising purposes. Trump’s action follows the Senate and House voting to eliminate the rules issued by the Federal Communications Commission during Barack Obama’s presidency.
“President Trump has signed away the only rules that guarantee Americans a choice in whether or not their sensitive Internet information is sold or given away,” said Chris Lewis, VP of consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge. Trump’s action also “eliminates the requirement that broadband providers notify their customers of any hacking or security breaches.”
While Democrats in Congress urged Trump to veto the repeal, it was clear last week that Trump would not do so. “The White House supports Congress using its authority under the Congressional Review Act to roll back last year’s FCC rules on broadband regulation,” Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Thursday in a press briefing. Spicer also criticized the FCC’s 2015 reclassification of ISPs as common carriers, a designation that was used to implement both the privacy rules and net neutrality rules. The net neutrality rules could also be rolled back under Trump’s leadership.
The FCC privacy rules would have required home Internet and mobile broadband providers to get consumers’ opt-in consent before using, sharing, or selling Web browsing history, app usage history, and other private information. The opt-in provision could have taken effect as early as December 4, 2017.
Without such rules, ISPs can analyze their customers’ Web browsing history in order to deliver personalized advertisements without seeking their prior consent. This doesn’t have to involve the sale of browsing data: ISPs who operate their own advertising networks (such as Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon) would be able to sell targeted ads without sharing their customers’ browsing history with third parties.
But ISPs without their own ad networks could also contract with third parties and share browsing data with them. The FCC rules would have required ISPs to gain customers’ opt-in consent before using or sharing their browsing data for any purpose. ISPs have pledged to let customers opt out of personalized advertising but oppose the opt-in requirement.
As TechDirt’s Mike Masnick explains, the rollback of the FCC rules doesn’t mean you can actually buy an individual’s Web browsing history.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai praised Trump’s move today.
“President Trump and Congress have appropriately invalidated one part of the Obama-era plan for regulating the Internet,” Pai said. “Those flawed privacy rules, which never went into effect, were designed to benefit one group of favored companies, not online consumers.”
Pai argued that ISPs should not be treated differently from website operators like Google and Facebook. Pai wants the Federal Trade Commission, not the FCC, to regulate both ISPs and companies that offer content over the Internet. While Pai opposes opt-in requirements, privacy advocates say that customers should be given a choice before their browsing data is shared or used for personalized advertising, as consumers are often unaware that opt-out systems even exist.