Even standing alone, the Trump administration’s eager embrace of legislation permitting internet service providers to sell information about your online browsing habits to advertisers would be a terrible mistake.
But the bill is even worse than that. It’s the first step in a dangerous plan to undo net neutrality and fatten the bank accounts of broadband companies such as Verizon and Comcast.
President Donald Trump signed what’s being called the internet privacy bill April 3, repealing vital consumer protections shortly after it barely cleared the House. Polls indicate more than 70 percent of Americans — from both major parties — oppose the legislation. So the Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai and acting Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Maureen Ohlhausen penned an opinion piece trying to justify the move.
They failed. Miserably.
Pai and Ohlhausen argue that the privacy law simply treats internet providers in the same way other laws and regulations treat online firms such as Google and Facebook when it comes to gathering and using data about internet browsing habits. They want to shift responsibility for policing the privacy practices of internet providers away from the FCC and back to the FTC.
It sounds like nothing more than a transfer of authority within the government, but it’s far more. The only way to accomplish it would be to reverse the FCC’s classification of broadband as a telecommunications service, a move that would kill the net neutrality protections the FCC adopted in 2015.
Net neutrality, or “open internet,” rules guarantee internet users can access the lawful content and services of their choice. Without net neutrality, broadband internet service providers could slow down or even block content they don’t like. They could create online fast lanes for the deep-pocketed and relegate non-commercial, independent speech to the slow lane.
For more than a decade, consumer advocates and grass-roots campaigns fought for strong net neutrality. For just as long, the FCC looked for alternatives to full-fledged net neutrality by writing weak rules that the courts repeatedly knocked down as improperly crafted.
At issue was whether the FCC classified broadband as an “information service” or a “telecommunications service.” That seemingly arcane distinction made all the difference; the courts told the FCC it could write net neutrality rules so long as it first classified broadband as a telecommunications service. But Big Cable and Big Telecom loathe classifying broadband correctly — they didn’t want to miss out on another opportunity to build online fast lanes.
In 2015, the FCC finally heard the voices of the more than 4 million Americans who spoke out for strong net neutrality and wrote legally durable open internet rules. The action also shifted jurisdiction over online consumer privacy jurisdiction from the FTC to the FCC.
The FCC then fashioned common-sense limits on how broadband companies can use consumer browsing data. The privacy rules, now set aside by the bill that Trump signed, prevented internet service providers from selling user data to advertisers without their consent.
It’s entirely possible, if unlikely, that some of the House and Senate members who voted for the internet privacy bill, thought they were only leveling the playing field for internet companies, giving broadband companies the same freedom to handle browsing data that content providers like Google and Facebook already enjoy.
But Pai knows better. It is past time for him, as a long-time foe of the open internet, to come clean. He should be clear about his plan to overturn the will of millions of broadband users by gutting net neutrality.
Michael Copps served as a Democrat on the Federal Communications Commission from 2001 to 2011, and as acting chairman for a period in 2009. He is a special adviser for Common Cause, a nonprofit group in Washington, D.C.