Federal Communications Commission boss Ajit Pai is pushing to halt part of an Obama-era set of privacy rules that would require internet service providers to get explicit consent before they share consumers’ browsing data and other personal information with advertisers.
Some background: Those rules were approved this past October under previous FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, who stepped down once President Trump took office (giving Pai and GOP commissioner Michael O’Rielly a 2-1 majority at the agency).
In general, the rules would require wireline and mobile ISPs to ensure customers opt-in to any programs that would share their web browsing and app usage histories, mobile location data, financial data, and other “sensitive” info with third parties for marketing purposes later this year. They’d also require ISPs to give “clear, conspicuous, and persistent” notifications of what data they collect and how it may be used.
But like many of Wheeler’s proposals, the privacy rules have faced intense opposition from ISPs and Republican officials. ISPs and advertisers have argued that introducing barriers to targeted ads could make it harder to provide certain free content, for one.
Pai and O’Rielly voted against the rules in October. In his dissent, Pai’s main complaint was with what he saw as a double standard: He said that the order unfairly stuck ISPs with stricter rules than internet companies like Google, which are able to harvest and monetize personal data more freely under looser guidelines from the Federal Trade Commission.
Pai says ISPs should be subject to those same guidelines. However, it’s worth noting that the FTC is forbidden from actually enforcing its rules over “common carriers” — a designation that was applied to all ISPs as part of the most recent net-neutrality rules.
Wheeler and consumer advocacy groups have argued the difference is fair on the grounds that ISPs are able to see everything a customer does over their internet connection, and that it’s harder to switch internet providers than use different apps and websites.
Nevertheless, the rules were enacted on a limited basis in January, while a provision that would generally require ISPs to “engage in reasonable data security practices” is set to go into legal effect on March 2.
Now, Pai wants the commission to vote on a request to halt progress of that specific provision before that date. (A vote would normally take place at the next FCC monthly meeting, but that’s not until later in the month.) According to an FCC spokesman, if Pai cannot get a full vote by March 2, then the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau will block the data security bit until a full vote “on the pending petitions” to the broader rules can take place.
That last part is notable: Pai’s request here comes after several telecom, cable, and ad industry groups filed petitions to the FCC to halt the broader set of privacy rules just last month. No vote on those has been scheduled yet, but with Pai and O’Rielly in control, it could lead to a rollback of the whole order.
Whatever the case, at least some dismantling of the privacy rules appears imminent. Beyond the FCC, Republicans in Congress are looking to undo the regulation entirely through the Congressional Review Act, a mid-’90s law that allows Congress to eliminate rules from government agencies like the FCC with a simple majority vote. However, that law only gives Congress 60 days to pass such legislation after a given rule goes into effect.
What Pai is targeting here doesn’t mean all the privacy rules will be thrown out immediately, and doesn’t necessarily mean Pai will ignore privacy protections completely. (He’s previously expressed concerns over static IP addresses and other things that could be used to persistently track users online, for instance.) But it is another symbol of his desire to dismantle the regulations set by his predecessor, another likely sign of greater reversals to come, and another win for ISPs.