Here’s How Trump’s FCC Privacy Rollback Puts Your Internet Data at Risk

The feds just axed a rule requiring ISPs to protect user data, in a victory for broadband giants.

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Mar 2 2017, 1:45pm

President Trump's newly-installed Federal Communications Commission chief moved to halt a key policy protecting online privacy and data security on Wednesday, in what public interest advocates called the latest Trump-era attack on FCC consumer safeguards.

Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai's action, which was expected, suspends a rule opposed by internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon that requires broadband giants to take "reasonable measures" to protect consumer information from "unauthorized use, disclosure, or access."

The data security rule was approved last year by the Obama-era FCC as part of a suite of privacy safeguards designed to give consumers more power over how ISPs use their personal information. The full privacy package, which is now on the Trump FCC's chopping block, requires ISPs to obtain "opt-in" consent from consumers before they use or sell sensitive personal information, including browsing activity, mobile app data, and emails and online chats.

Consumer advocates say the FCC's data security rule, along with the broader privacy policy, is necessary at a time of increasing cyberattacks against internet users. Wednesday's FCC action drew a strong rebuke from the agency's lone Democratic commissioner and other public interest advocates.

"After finally gaining basic privacy protections for broadband providers last year, it's outrageous that Chairman Pai will now remove the simple rule that internet service providers must take reasonable data security measures to protect their customers' information," Chris Lewis, vice president at DC-based consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, said in a statement.

The nation's largest ISPs, including Comcast, AT&T and Verizon, have lobbied vigorously for the FCC to scrap the privacy policy, which they claim is an example of "regulatory overreach." Pai, a former Verizon lawyer who has made no secret of his distaste for the FCC's privacy rules, appears more than willing to oblige.

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, the sole remaining Democrat at the agency following the departure of her two Democratic colleagues earlier this year, blasted the move as a "proxy for gutting the Commission's duly adopted privacy rules."

"With a stroke of the proverbial pen, the Federal Communications Commission—the same agency that should be the 'cop on the beat' when it comes to ensuring appropriate consumer protections—is leaving broadband customers without assurances that their providers will keep their data secure," Clyburn said in an emailed statement.

"Another day, another blow to internet users, struck yet again by the Trump FCC."

The FCC's decision, which was approved by a 2-1 vote with Clyburn as the lone dissenter, is the latest move aimed at rolling back the pro-consumer policies championed by Pai's predecessor, former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, according to public interest advocates. And there's much more to come, they say, including an expected attempt to kill the FCC's landmark policy safeguarding net neutrality, the principle that all internet content should be equally accessible.

"Another day, another blow to internet users, struck yet again by the Trump FCC on behalf of the giant media conglomerates that the president's new chairman is hell-bent on protecting," Matt Wood, policy director at DC-based public interest group Free Press, said in a statement.

Last week, the FCC took a major step toward killing the agency's net neutrality policy by scrapping open internet transparency protections for millions of consumers served by hundreds of small and medium-sized ISPs around the country. That rule required ISPs to provide consumers with detailed information about internet prices, speeds and service.

And last month, Pai halted the FCC's inquiry into zero-rating, a controversial practice in which ISPs exempt certain services from data caps, effectively favoring those offerings at the expense of rivals. Open internet advocates say such practices create the kind of discriminatory online environment that the FCC's net neutrality policy was designed to prevent.

So what was Pai's rationale for halting the broadband data security rule?

Pai, echoing ISPs like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon, argues that because the FCC's privacy policy doesn't apply to websites like Google and Facebook, which are regulated by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the FCC's policy puts ISPs at a competitive disadvantage relative to the Silicon Valley giants. So it should be scrapped.

In a statement, which was joined by Republican Acting FTC Chairman Maureen K. Ohlhausen, Pai expressed his belief that broadband privacy oversight should be "returned to the FTC," which the pair asserted is "the nation's expert agency with respect to these important subjects." This statement amounts to the death knell for the FCC's broadband privacy policy.

Not surprisingly, the broadband industry praised Wednesday's FCC action, with NCTA, the nation's main cable industry trade group, calling the move "a welcome recognition that consumers benefit most when privacy protections are consistently applied throughout the internet ecosystem."

Matt Wood of Free Press said that Wednesday's decision amounts to a huge gift to ISPs like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T, at the expense of consumers.

"The simple fact is that the FCC's abdication of its responsibility leaves internet users with no protections today against such broadband providers' negligence," Wood said. "Today's vote is yet another sign that the new majority at both commissions will do anything and everything they can to hand over your private data to the country's biggest cable, telephone and internet gatekeepers, no questions asked."