Internet Providers Can Now Sell Your Personal Data Without Your Consent

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Who owns your personal data? What about your internet browsing history? If you answered either of those questions with "me, of course," you might be in for a major surprise. In a move Democrats have classified as a serious blow to consumers, Senate Republicans voted Thursday to roll back Obama-era guidelines established to protect web surfers' privacy. The vote would enable internet service providers to sell users' personal data to third-party advertisers without their consent.

The Senate voted Thursday 50-48 (with most Republicans in support of the measure) to repeal consumer privacy regulations passed — though not implemented — by the Federal Communication Commission in October 2016. The regulations would have required internet service providers to obtain consumers' explicit consent before selling or sharing users' personal data, location information, or browsing history with third-party advertisers.

However, because the FCC regulations did not extend to certain search engine websites or social media networks, internet service providers — and most Republicans — have argued they're unfair and could potentially hinder internet service providers in the quest for ad revenue. "The FCC privacy rules are just another example of burdensome rules that hurt more than they help," Republican Sen. John Cornyn said, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Moreover, Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, who proposed the legislation under the Congressional Review Act after Trump took office, said repealing the guidelines would "protect consumers from overreaching internet regulation" when introducing the bill earlier this month.

But Democrats argue the regulations Republicans are looking to do away with are a necessary means of protecting consumer privacy and ensuring Americans retain some control over their personal data. In a joint statement issued shortly after the Senate's Thursday vote, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn and FTC Commissioner Terrell McSweeny said the measure to repeal the FCC's broadband privacy framework would "frustrate" future efforts to protect consumers' privacy as it would also bar the agency from ever passing similar consumer privacy protections going forward. The two sole Democratic commissioners of the FCC and the FTC claimed the measure "creates a massive gap in consumer protection laws and broadband cable companies now have no discernible privacy requirements."

While Sen. Flake's measure to repeal FCC privacy regulations has found zero support with Senate Democrats, it's been widely applauded by Ajit Pai, the man President Donald Trump appointed to chair the FCC in January.

"Chairman Pai believes that the best way to protect the online privacy of American consumers is through a comprehensive and uniform regulatory framework," the FCC said in a statement issued in February — when Pai paused the rollout of some of his predecessors' other privacy regulations. "All actors in the online space should be subject to the same rules, and the federal government shouldn't favor one set of companies over another."

Although Republicans managed to pass Flake's Broadband Privacy CRA through the Senate, the measure still needs to pass the House and be signed by President Donald Trump before it is considered law.