Senate votes to repeal FCC's privacy rules for ISPs

Wireless carriers and other ISPs have complained the rules gave companies such as Facebook and Google an unfair edge in online advertising.

The U.S. Senate voted Thursday to eliminate broadband privacy rules that prohibit internet service providers (ISPs) from selling their customers’ data.

The 50-48 vote was along party lines—all but two Republicans voted in favor of the repeal, while every Democratic voted against it—and it marks a first step toward gutting rules put in place by the FCC last August. The rules essentially prohibit carriers from sharing customers’ personal data with third parties without users’ consent, and wireless carriers and other ISPs have complained that they hamper efforts to monetize information on customers’ behavior via advertising.

The vote also prohibits the FCC from reintroducing the rules in the future. The measure will now head to the House.

“The FCC’s midnight regulation has the potential to limit consumer choice, stifle innovation, and jeopardize data security by destabilizing the internet ecosystem,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who authored the bill, in a prepared statement. “Passing my resolution is the first step toward restoring a consumer-friendly approach to internet privacy regulation that empowers consumers to make informed choices on if and how their data can be shared. It will not change or lessen existing consumer privacy protections.”

The move comes as wireless network operators such as Verizon and AT&T move aggressively into digital media and advertising. The FCC’s rules were unfair, carriers have argued, because it gives an unfair advantage to players such as Facebook and Google, which have massive online advertising businesses but aren’t subject to laws for ISPs.

Predictably, industry trade groups were quick to cheer the move, and consumer advocacy groups voiced their disapproval.

“CTIA and the wireless industry applaud Senator Flake and the 24 resolution cosponsors for their leadership in seeking a commonsense and harmonized approach to protecting Americans’ privacy,” CTIA CEO Meredith Attwell Baker said in a statement. “Wireless carriers are committed to safeguarding consumer privacy, and we support regulatory clarity and uniformity across our digital economy.”

Meanwhile, the self-described digital rights group Fight for the Future blasted the move.

“Today, 50 members of the U.S. Senate voted to sell their constituents’ most personal information to the highest bidder,” said the group, which had pushed the FCC to establish the rules last year. “They used a blatantly undemocratic Congressional procedure to gut basic protections that prevent internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon from selling their customers’ personal information to marketers without their permission.”