Federal Communications Commission boss Ajit Pai is pushing to halt part of an Obama-era set of privacy rules that 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 commission).
In general, the rules 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. They 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 monetise personal data more freely under looser guidelines from the Federal Trade Commission. Pai says ISPs should be subject to those same guidelines.
Wheeler and other Democrats argued the difference was 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 services.
Nevertheless, most of the rules were enacted on a limited basis in January, while a provision that would 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 prevent it until a full vote is able to take place.
The emergency vote request comes after several telecom and cable industry groups filed a petition to the FCC to halt progress on the privacy rules last month.
Whatever the case, the wider privacy rules are likely to be rolled back in some form. 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 aiming to stop 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, and another likely sign of greater reversals to come.