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Senate votes to undo internet privacy regulations

March 26, 2017 at 5:08 PM EDT
The Senate voted on March 23 to overturn internet privacy rules created to prevent providers like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T from sharing users' personal information or selling it without permission. While the House has yet to vote on the issue, the Senate vote has worried consumer groups who cite privacy concerns. Recode reporter Tony Romm joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss.
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HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: Last week, the Senate voted to overturn Internet privacy rules that were designed to prevent Internet providers like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T from sharing your browsing data, history, financial, health, communication and location information without your explicit permission. Providers are looking to sell that data to advertisers. The House has yet to weigh in, but consumer groups oppose the move citing privacy concerns.

For some insight, I’m joined now by “Recode” reporter Tony Romm, who’s been following the story.

First, thanks for joining us.

And so, the Senate’s passed it. That means the House is going to consider it next. I kind of gave a rough explanation, but do us a favor. And what are these rules? What’s at stake?

TONY ROMM, RECODE REPORTER: Sure and thanks for having me.

These privacy rules are about as good as dead. You know, you have to rewind the clock a bit to the last administration to understand how we got to where we are now. The FCC under chairman Tom Wheeler, an appointee from President Barack Obama, put in place rules the require Internet providers like Comcast and Verizon and AT&T to ask your permission, to ask customers permission before they share their personal information with third parties, advertisers included.

Democrats at the time felt that Internet service providers just had too great a look into your private life and could do myriad things with that information possibly against your will. But Republicans didn’t like it. Republicans at the time voted against those rules. They found them burdensome. They felt the FCC was reaching far beyond its mandate under law.

And what we’re seeing now is an evolution of that. Republicans on Capitol Hill voted as you said in the Senate, just last week, 50 to 48, largely along party lines, to gut those rules. The House is expected to vote this week and you can pretty much expect them to do te same as the Senate, setting us this up to head to the trash heap.

SREENIVASAN: OK. So, these rules were designed — I mean, one of the concerns that the industry has and they push back, and say, listen, it’s not fair for me Comcast or AT&T, not to able to do the things that Facebook and Google already do, which is sell that user data.

ROMM: Absolutely, that’s the argument that those Internet providers made to the FCC and they made in Congress with a very expensive lobbying campaign, saying that they just felt they were being subjected to stronger rules than a Google or a Facebook or a Microsoft, and what-have-you. That being said, Internet providers have a much different look at you and your personal information than some of these tech companies. If you don’t like Google, for example, you can just go use Bing.

But if, you know, Comcast is your Internet provider and they’re able to see the totality of your web history, they can get different insights from you, greater insights from you that they can then sell to advertisers. That’s why you had consumer groups, whether it was the ACLU and folks on Capitol Hill, mostly Democrats, who said this was just too much, and it was time for privacy rules. Unfortunately, in their case, these rules aren’t staying on the books.

SREENIVASAN: You know, I remember searching for a piece of luggage once, and then all a sudden, I saw ads from luggage for a week and a half, right?

ROMM: Yes.

SREENIVASAN: Everywhere I went, every website. So, one of the things that the industry always says, well, this is just to try to tailor it so that you find more relevant advertising.

But what other uses are there for this information besides that luggage example?

ROMM: Sure, not even just relevant information, in terms of the ads you’re seeing. It’s also to pay for the services that most customers don’t want to pay for. You know, they don’t want to pay for a service like a Facebook or a Twitter, not that those companies are looking necessarily to charge you. But the reason so much of the Internet is free is because you are paying for it in a different way and that’s in the form of your personal information.

But, really, we’re just at the beginning of this. Wireless companies, for example, are looking for new and creative ways to advertise and to monetize users’ information to help their balance sheet. That’s why Verizon went out and purchased Yahoo. Now, that’s a deal that’s kind of in a bit of trouble right now given the cyber attack on Yahoo recently, and all the reports of it, rather.

But, you know, that was one example of the kinds of things that these companies would like to do. They would like to get more information from you and to begin to serve you more and different kinds of advertising, whether it’s relevant, based on your interest, or something else entirely.

SREENIVASAN: All right. Tony Romm of “Recode” — thanks so much for joining us.

ROMM: Thanks for having me.

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