The Republican push to eliminate Obama-era consumer data protections is sparking a new national debate over online privacy, and putting internet companies on the defensive.
The measure blocking the online privacy rules is on the desk of President Trump, who is expected to sign it.
But the firestorm of controversy shows no signs of easing. Broadband titans like AT&T and Comcast and web giants like Google and Facebook now find themselves under growing pressure over their privacy policies.
“We’ll definitely make it pretty clear what right was given away and the extent that it was given way,” vowed Ernesto Falcon, legislative analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
The rules passed by the Federal Communications Commission would have restricted internet service providers from selling consumer data deemed “sensitive,” including app usage information and web browsing history, without consent. That data is used for targeted ads directed at consumers.
The rules passed in 2015 with little fanfare, the result of the FCC’s net neutrality rules, which brought internet providers under the agency’s authority.
Critics, though, said the FCC rules treated broadband providers like cable and phone companies tougher than internet companies like Yahoo or Facebook, which able to sell their consumer data, under the Federal Trade Commission’s privacy framework.
Republicans moved quickly to kill off the FCC privacy rules that were slated to take effect later this year.
The Senate voted to repeal the rules under the Congressional Review Act, with the House following suit on Tuesday. And the White House on Thursday said Trump would sign the measure.
Democrats and consumer groups though have been banging the drum over the issue, and the public appears to be taking notice.
The FCC has received upwards of 12,000 comments on the repeal within the last 30 days, well above the normal response.
Advocacy groups, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Free Press, have also mobilized supporters on social media.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Tuesday also sent letters to a number of broadband providers, ahead of the House vote on repeal, calling them out and urging them to oppose the GOP effort.
Pelosi singled out AT&T, Century Link, Charter, Comcast, Cox, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon among others, demanding to know their stance.
Some big names have also joined the public pushback.
“Late Show” host Stephen Colbert raised the issue on his show Wednesday, calling Rep. Marsha Blackburn ‘s (R-Tenn.) arguments in defense of the repeal “bullshit.”
“I guarantee you there is not one person, not one voter of any political stripe anywhere in America who asked for this,” he said.
The new privacy fight appears to have caught companies off guard.
Industry officials expressed frustration over the backlash to The Hill in the days after the votes.
On Friday, Comcast and AT&T, hit back publicly, insisting critics were misinformed and that the companies were committed to privacy safeguards.
“No one is saying there shouldn’t be any rules,” wrote Bob Quinn, AT&T senior executive vice president of external and legislative affairs. “Supporters of … [repeal] all agree that the rescinded FCC rules should be replaced by a return to the long-standing Federal Trade Commission approach. But in today’s overheated political dialogue, it is not surprising that some folks are ignoring the facts.”
“There has been a lot of misleading talk about how the congressional action this week to overturn the regulatory overreach of the prior FCC will now permit us to sell sensitive customer data without customers’ knowledge or consent. This is just not true,” wrote Gerard Lewis, Comcast senior vice president.
Even with Trump poised to sign the bill, privacy advocates say the fight isn’t over. They note that many states are moving to strengthen their own online privacy rules.
And while the FCC rules focused on internet providers, state privacy laws may cast a wider net.
Lawmakers in Illinois are considering legislation that includes a “right to know” measure that would let consumers know what data is being collected by companies like Google and Facebook. Illinois lawmakers are also poised to vote on regulations limiting geotracking and the use of microphones on internet connected devices.
California and Connecticut also recently passed laws restricting government access to digital messages. Hawaii and Missouri are weighing legislation that would keep companies from accessing employees’ social media. Nebraska and West Virginia have already passed similar laws.
Despite the public furor, for now, companies are trying to reassure the public that little will change on the privacy front.
U.S. Telecom, a trade industry group, in a statement encouraging Trump to sign the repeal measure said “customers can rest easy” in a statement Tuesday, saying there were already other rules in place “to keep consumers’ data safe.”
The group also cited “broad industry commitments to shield consumer data announced earlier this year,” which they said “add another layer of protection” for the public.
But both sides are also gearing up for a long fight over an issue that now has the public’s attention.
Privacy groups are also vowing to target GOP lawmakers.
“I will be curious how this plays out in April at Republican town halls during recess,” said Falcon.
“I’d said all of our allied orgs are ready for this. I think they plan to make this a 2018 [election] fight.”