Republicans in Congress are preparing to blow up federal rules protecting consumers from broadband privacy abuses, and there's virtually nothing Democrats can do to stop them.
Sen. Jeff Flake, the Arizona Republican, plans to use a rare legislative vehicle called the Congressional Review Act (CRA) to roll back the Federal Communications Commission's broadband privacy regulations, he told Politico on Wednesday.
The CRA allows Congress to nullify recent regulations with a simple majority vote, and Flake has reportedly lined up at least 12 co-sponsors. Importantly, the CRA process would block the FCC from issuing "substantially similar" regulations in the future. In other words, forget about FCC broadband privacy protections for the foreseeable future.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn, the Tennessee Republican who has received colossal sums of campaign cash from the telecom industry, is reportedly taking the lead on the privacy roll-back in the House. Blackburn was recently tapped to lead a key Congressional subcommittee with broad jurisdiction over cable, phone, and internet issues.
The Republican effort is part of a comprehensive campaign to dismantle regulatory safeguards across broad swaths of the US economy, including rules protecting the environment, internet freedom, and consumer safety and labor rights.
Broadband giants like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon loathe the FCC's privacy rules, which require them to obtain "opt-in" consent from consumers before they use or sell sensitive consumer data, including online browsing activity, mobile app data, and emails and online chats. This "opt-in" rule jeopardizes these companies' ability to make money by displaying hyper-targeted advertising based on private user preferences and internet browsing habits.
"The big broadband barons want to turn back the clock and undo these fundamental consumer protections so they can freely collect and profit from customer's sensitive personal information," Sen. Ed Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat, said in a recent statement. "I will strongly oppose any efforts to roll back the broadband privacy rules either by Congress or at the FCC."
Unfortunately for Markey and other privacy advocates, policy experts say there is virtually nothing they can do to stop the privacy rollback, short of whipping up enough grassroots political anger to make the Republicans back off. A CRA resolution cannot be stopped by a filibuster in the Senate.
The CRA, which was passed in 1996 as part of former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich's so-called "Contract With America," is an extremely rare legislative maneuver. Until this week, it had only been deployed successfully once, to overturn a Clinton administration ergonomics rule in 2001.
With Republicans now in control of Congress and Donald Trump in the White House, there are no less than ten CRA actions winding their way through the legislative branch. These measures include resolutions that would ease regulations on mining companies, and loosen financial transparency rules for oil and gas companies.
The nation's big internet service providers (ISPs) have complained that the FCC's privacy rules don't apply to websites like Google and Facebook, which are regulated under the jurisdiction of the Federal Trade Commission. As a result, the telecom industry argues that the FCC's policy puts it at a competitive disadvantage relative to the Silicon Valley giants, which also collect huge amounts of user data.
Public interest groups argue that the real reason companies like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T, want to loosen the privacy rules is to gain access to vast quantities to sensitive user data, which they can then use or sell in order to fatten their bottom lines.
"The cable, telecom, wireless, and advertising lobbies' request for CRA intervention is just another industry attempt to overturn rules that empower users and give them a say in how their private information may be used," a coalition of public interest groups including the the ACLU, the Center for Media Justice, and Public Knowledge, wrote to lawmakers last month.
"These groups now ask Congress to create a vacuum and to give ISPs carte blanche, with no privacy rules or enforcement in place," the coalition added. "The CRA is a blunt instrument and it is inappropriate in this instance, where rules clearly benefit internet users notwithstanding ISPs' disagreement with them."