Republican FCC moves to block new privacy rules

Back in January, we reported on how the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) new rules on data privacy looked likely to be rolled back once the Trump administration was in place, and sadly, one month into the new regime, it looks like our worst fears are being realised.

New Chairman opposes privacy

As we predicted last month, the new Chairman of the FCC is Republic Ajit Pai, who last October opposed privacy laws which placed a burden on broadband to offer stronger privacy guarantees than websites. At the time, the FCC had a 3-2 Democrat majority and the laws passed by the same margin.

He had already suggested the new rules would most likely be rolled back if the Republicans took a majority on the FCC after the election and even wrote to broadband companies telling them as much.

As Chairman, and with the FCC currently having a 2-1 Republican Majority, Pai is now acting. He has suspended the implementation of the new rules and announced that some aspects of them are being reviewed by the White House Office of Management and Budget. Experts note that this is the typical process by which the new rules were expected to be blocked.

A spokesperson for the FCC, called Mark Wigfield, made a statement in which he reemphasised the point of view Pai has already made clear in public many times, stating that Pai believes that “online space should be subject to the same rules, and the federal government should not favour one set of companies over another.”

Proposed new rules

On the face of it, the new rules passed by the FCC last year were eminently sensible and proportionate. They would have required broadband providers to get consent from users before being able to make use of data such as geolocation, financial information, health information, children’s information and Web browser history.

Indeed, as we reported back when the rules were originally passed, many experts claimed the rules did not go far enough, as it was still permissible for ISPs to obtain consent through terms of service update which they no few if any users will read, but the majority will just agree to.

But Pai and his Republican believed the new rules gave websites a competitive advantage over ISPs and vehemently opposed them throughout. The interests of individual consumers and their right to privacy does not seem to have made it onto their radar at all.

Democrat condemnation

Needless to say, the Democrat party which originally passed the new rules has expressed its firm opposition to Pai’s decision.

Mignon Clyburn, who is the sole remaining Democratic FCC Commissioner made a statement in which he said that “Chairman Pai is determined to take action that leaves consumers without a cop on the beat protecting their personal information from misuse by their broadband service provider.”

Meanwhile, former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who was in charge when the new rules were passed last year, tellingly said ““The fact of the matter is it’s the consumer’s information… It’s not the network’s information.”

Net Neutrality erosion

And it is not only online privacy where Ajit Pai is siding with corporations over consumers. The FCC have also announced that net neutrality rules are being loosened too. A rule which requires users broadband providers to share some data regarding their services will now only apply to businesses with more than 250,000 subscribers rather than the 100,000 originally legislated for.

No coherent arguments have been made to justify these claims and estimates suggest that the change will save just 17 companies a total of 7 man-hours per year each. O why the fuss? Well as Mignon Clyburn has noted, this is linked to net neutrality and is likely to be the first of many steps towards undermining net neutrality laws and allowing big business to discriminate online for financial rewards.

Once again, the interests of the consumer are being put behind those of big business and their profits. But more importantly, some fundamental online principals are coming under attack.

Concerns about online privacy in the Trump era have been much written about, but this is the first real cast-iron evidence of Republican’s starting to manoeuvre to undermine them. And for any US citizens who go online without using a VPN, this should be of serious concern.

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