Senate Might Let Internet Companies Sell User Data to 'Highest Bidder'

The Senate is set to vote this week whether to let broadband companies sell user information to the highest bidder—overturning rules implemented by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and possibly banning the agency from passing similar restrictions in the future.

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Sen. Jeff Flake (R–Ariz.) introduced a resolution earlier this month that would overturn the FCC’s rules, passed in October, that block providers such as Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon from selling personal information like web-browsing and app usage history to third-party vendors without users’ consent.

Flake introduced the measure under the Congressional Review Act (CRA), which gives lawmakers the power to overturn recently-passed agency rules by a simple majority.

Once a rule is repealed through this process, the CRA blocks the agency from passing similar measures unless it is specifically authorized by a new law.

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“With this move, Congress is essentially allowing companies like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon to sell consumers’ private information to the highest bidder,” the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) legislative counsel Neema Singh Guliani said at the time. “Members of Congress should not bow down to industry pressure. Consumers have a right to control how these companies use their sensitive data.”

The ACLU and other rights groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Free Press, as well as a slew of progressive lawmakers, launched a campaign urging senators to reject Flake’s legislation.

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“If they win, every U.S. internet provider will be monitoring you and selling your online habits to advertisers, without your permission,” the digital rights group Fight for the Future wrote on its campaign website, savebroadbandprivacy.org.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) tweeted, “If Republicans are committed to protecting privacy, why are they letting corporations sell our personal information?”

“#BroadbandPrivacy shouldn’t be complicated. Our information belongs to us, not Comcast and Verizon,” he added.

If the rules are reversed, it would mark the latest blow to internet privacy and freedom in the Trump administration. Under former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, the agency put a number of landmark regulations into place, including codifying the internet as a public utility and implementing strong protections for net neutrality.

But the new Republican chairman Ajit Pai has already launched an attack on these and other protections—leaving many to fear that he is aiming to dismantle the commission’s major recent gains.

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