The US House of Representatives passed a resolution on Tuesday reversing Barack Obama-era online privacy protections that imposed severe restrictions on what Internet service providers could do with their data about their customers’ browsing behaviour.
The resolution was introduced and passed in the Senate last week and now goes to President Donald Trump, who is expected to sign it into law, which many experts feared could lead to massive invasion of privacy and leave many Americans vulnerable to hackers and cyber-attacks.
The vote went along party lines, as in the Senate, in line with a view current among Republicans that the privacy protection rules, ordered in 2016 and scheduled to kick in later this year, was throttling innovation and competition.
The legislative action, if enacted, will prevent the Federal Communications Commission, which framed the Obama-era protections, from re-visiting the issue. The federal regulatory body’s newly appointed chairman Ajit Pai, an Indian American, welcomed the vote and promised to work with another federal regulatory body to protect consumers’ online privacy.
The new rules would enable Internet service providers such as Verizon, Comcast and AT&T, to mine information they had collected from the browsing activity of their consumers for highly targeted advertising, an $83 billion market currently dominated by Facebook and Google.
Or, they could sell that data to online advertising markets, financial companies and anyone else who can pay to use the information without the consent of consumers, which was earlier a mandatory requirement.
Supporters of the new relaxed rules have argued that search engines and video-streaming services such as Netflix are already collecting and using that data, but critics have said consumers have the choice to switch to other platforms.
That kind of wide choice was not available to service providers, with most neighbourhoods served by one or two at the most.
“This is one of the most brain-dead technology policies that any government could implement,” Vivek Wadhwa, tech entrepreneur turned academic, said. “This will allow the Internet carriers to spy on their customers and sell their data. Really is outrageous and a huge step backwards for consumer privacy.”