WASHINGTON — A coalition of eight Senate Democrats — including Vermont’s Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders — sent a letter to the largest internet providers in America Wednesday requesting specific details on their policies for protecting the privacy of subscribers.
The letter — sent to AT&T, Comcast, Charter, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile and CenturyLink — was prompted by the recent rollback of the Federal Communication Commission’s broadband privacy rules passed by congressional Republicans last week and signed by President Donald Trump on Monday.
Congressional Republicans invoked the Congressional Review Act to repeal the rules, which passed during the tail end of President Barack Obama’s tenure. The rules, which passed last October and were set to go into effect late this year, required internet providers to get consent from Americans before sharing or selling sensitive information like browsing history, web application use and location details.
The rollback essentially allows internet service providers to delve into the online advertising marketplace by selling valuable information to companies targeting ads to eyeballs. Online sites like Google and Facebook are already permitted to sell consumer information.
The FCC rules instituted under Obama also required providers to create data security features to protect sensitive information from being compromised. In addition, the Republican rollback overturns Obama-era net neutrality measures prohibiting internet providers from charging websites and applications extra fees for faster download speeds.
With the rules eliminated, the largest communication companies in America are now free to use, share and sell information detailing virtually all of the user habits of individual subscribers on the web.
“We strongly disagree with the CRA resolution, and believe that broadband providers should follow strong privacy and security rules that give consumers control over how their information is used and shared, as well as confidence their information will be protected,” the senators wrote. “In light of this Congressional action, we write to ask how your company plans to protect the privacy of the millions of Americans who rely on your services to connect to the Internet.”
Various online privacy organizations, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, lobbied heavily against the bill, and thousands of Americans called into Congress to protest the bill.
But because Republicans rolled back the rules using the powers of the Congressional Review Act, a 1996 law that allows recently passed regulations to be overturned by a simple majority vote, no Democratic votes were needed.
The resolution, S.J.Res. 34, passed both chambers by slim margins. While the Senate vote was along party lines — 50 to 48 — there were 15 House Republicans who voted against the measure.
Fifty Republican senators and 215 House members have received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from telecom companies, such as Comcast, Verizon and AT&T, that lobbied for the repeal, according to the Verge, a tech industry website.
All three members of Vermont’s congressional delegation voted against the rules change. Neither Leahy, Sanders nor Welch received campaign donations from telecom companies.
The measure was introduced by Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., as a means to repeal Obama rules that “limit consumer choice, stifle innovation, and jeopardize data security by destabilizing the Internet ecosystem.”
By rolling back the rules through the Congressional Review Act, the FCC is banned from writing similar rules regulating internet service providers in the future. The Electronic Frontier Foundation said the actions by Trump and congressional Republicans throws into question the ability of the government to police providers “looking to trade off their customers’ privacy for higher profits.”
The Wednesday letter was signed by eight of the most liberal senators in the chamber: Al Franken, D-Minn., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Ed Markey, D-Mass., Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., in addition to Leahy and Sanders.
With no path to reinstating the rules, the letter appeared to be an effort at shaming internet service providers into voluntarily creating privacy protections for their customers.
“Do you notify customers at the point-of-sale, before purchase, of the types of information collected, how and for what purposes you use and share this information, and with whom that information is shared or sold?” one of the 16 questions reads. “ If yes, please detail your policy. If no, why not?”