A U-turn on internet privacy

In March, US Rep. Michael Capuano took the House floor, channeled his best inner-Somerville (circa 1980), and ripped Republican lawmakers who were about to strip away internet privacy protections for consumers that had been adopted in the closing months of the Obama administration.

“What the heck are you thinking? What is in your mind,” thundered a flabbergasted Capuano.

The Federal Communication Commission rules, which were supposed to go into effect this December, would ban internet service providers such as Comcast and Verizon from sharing or selling subscribers’ browsing history. Under the FCC rule change, the companies would have to get a customer’s permission to collect such information.

In what should become a classic TMI moment of House floor speeches, Capuano went on to make his point by sharing that he recently made an online purchase of new underwear. “Why should you know what size I take, or the color?” he asked. (Why, any student of modern politics must have wondered, no reference to boxers or briefs?)

The internet companies argued that the restriction gave an unfair advantage to online behemoths such as Google and Facebook, which are not covered by the rule since they are not internet service providers but engage in the same scraping of browsing data to sell for marketing purposes. The Republican majorities in the House and Senate seemed eager to answer their cries by jettisoning the rule, and President Trump appeared poised to sign such a measure.

The Republican run on internet privacy stirred a strong backlash, with crowdfunding campaigns launched to raise money to buy — and publicly release — the browsing history information of GOP lawmakers. One of the prime targets: Rep. Marsha Blackburn, chairman of the pivotal House Communications and Technology Subcommittee, who was reported to have received $84,000 in campaign donations from the telecom industry in the 2016 election cycle and nearly $700,000 over the span of her career.

But Blackburn, in an Emily Litella moment, has now basically declared, “never mind.”

The Tennessee Republican has reversed course on the issue and declared that she still wants to even the playing field for internet providers, but she wants to do so not by freeing them from the privacy rules, but by making the rules apply to non-service providers like Google and Facebook as well.

“Internet privacy has a new best friend, and it’s the last person you’d expect,” writes the Globe’s Hiawatha Bray about Blackburn’s about-face on the issue.

Along with two Republican colleagues, Blackburn has filed legislation to require consumer permission to collect browsing data for service providers as well as online businesses. The bill would do that by imposing regulations through the Federal Trade Commission, which has the authority to regulate both types of businesses unlike the FCC, whose reach only extends to internet service providers.

“The government should not pick winners and losers when it comes to the privacy of Americans,” Blackburn said. “This bill creates a level and fair privacy playing field by bringing all entities that collect and sell the personal data of individuals under the same rules.”

In his March floor speech, Capuano implored his Republican colleagues to check with their constituents on the issue.

“Why would you want to give out any of your information to a faceless corporation for the sole purpose of them selling it?” Capuano said. “Go out on the street, please leave Capitol Hill for five minutes, go anywhere you want. Find three people on the street that think it’s OK…. I guarantee you, you won’t find anyone in your district who wants this bill passed.”

It seems Blackburn just might have taken him up on the challenge.

In a statement she issued after her flip on the issue, Blackburn said, “If you ask the American people if they’re OK with having less control over their online privacy so companies can sell their data — they’d say no.”

Bray says Blackburn’s bill could hurt online advertising revenue, harming small online operators and perhaps also news sites like the Globe’s. But he says “our privacy is worth something too.”

–MICHAEL JONAS


BEACON HILL

House Speaker Robert DeLeo says there are options for dealing with a budget deficit approaching half a billion dollars. (Lowell Sun)

Four years after the Legislature raised the age to 17 for youths to be tried in juvenile courts, lawmakers will consider raising it even higher with a bill that would place 18- to 20-year olds under the juvenile system for most crimes. (State House News Service)

The state handed out more than $42 million to Hollywood film companies last year for three movies that were box office flops as part of the state’s controversial film tax credit program. (Boston Herald)

A state task force seems poised to recommend broader powers for the State Ethics Commission. (State House News Service)

A Herald editorial pans a move by state Rep. Michael Day of Stoneham to earmark 1 percent of marijuana tax revenue for youth jobs and says Beacon Hill should not be “slicing and dicing” the anticipated new proceeds to specific uses, no matter how worthy, in today’s strained budget climate.

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

The Harwich town treasurer postponed a scheduled sale of delinquent tax bills and auction rights to private debt collectors after selectmen voted to ask her to search one more time for missing owners. (Cape Cod Times)

The Brockton City Council removed the private developer tapped to oversee construction of a municipal garage downtown and replaced it with the quasi-public Brockton Redevelopment Authority after the company declined to pledge to follow state procurement guidelines. (The Enterprise)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

Joan Vennochi says German chancellor Angela Merkel is now the leader of the free world. (Boston Globe)

White House advisor and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner and his business partners used a loophole in the federal EB-5 visa program to draw a map that allowed them to build a luxury high-rise residential tower while claiming it benefitted a low-income area. (Washington Post) It’s a tactic CommonWealth spotlighted in a story about the sketchy investment program in the Spring 2015 issue.

ELECTIONS

Polls in England show a tightening race that threatens the majority held by Prime Minister Theresa May in the election she called. (U.S. News & World Report)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Former state treasurer and independent gubernatorial candidate Tim Cahill, whose trial on fraud charges and misusing Lottery resources to promote his campaign ended in mistrial, has been named president and executive director of the Quincy Chamber of Commerce. (Patriot Ledger)

EDUCATION

Framingham school officials are facing a staffing “debacle” with potential layoffs looming because of an anticipated cut in federal Title I funding. (MetroWest Daily News)

A new advanced technology fabric center is opening at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, bringing a high-tech touch to the city’s textile past. (Boston Globe) Lowell is hoping a $10 million state grant could revive the textile business in the city. (Lowell Sun)

Former Boston state rep Marty Walz says the bad sportsmanship shown by the Massachusetts Teachers Association in refusing to recognize National Teacher of the Year Sydney Chaffee smacks of the sort of divisive behavior shown by President Trump. (Education Post)

The chairman of the trustees board at Boston College High School has stepped down as part of a big shake-up of the board after it floated the idea of admitting girls to the all-boys Catholic school. (Boston Globe)

Worcester schools are installing washers and dryers, hoping that clean clothes will make kids want to stay in class. (Telegram & Gazette)

TRANSPORTATION

Commuter rail riders are preparing to hop on buses a lot this summer as stretches of track are shut down for repairs and safety initiatives. (Salem News)

The much-cheaper Middleboro route for the South Coast Rail project nudged slightly forward after the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs issued a certificate for further research to be done on the proposal. (Standard-Times)

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

Eversource seeks to amend its $96 million rate filing by charging those in eastern Massachusetts more so those in western Massachusetts will see a smaller price spike. (CommonWealth)

Seven suburbs of Boston complain to the Department of Public Utilities that a rate change proposed by Eversource would hinder their solar development efforts and cost them a collective $1.6 million a year. (CommonWealth)

Ben Hellerstein of Environment Massachusetts says Gov. Charlie Baker is all talk and no action on doubling the emissions target under the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. (CommonWealth)

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh announced the cancellation of a planned international climate summit in the city this summer, citing a lack of federal support for the event. (Boston Globe)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

Juan Anibel Patrone appears to be the kingpin of a fentanyl drug ring that sold throughout the Northeast and was brought down in a raid on Tuesday. (Eagle-Tribune)

A bill filed by Dorchester state Rep. Evandro Carvalho would keep intact the conviction of any inmate who commits suicide — preventing future cases like that of former Patriots player Aaron Hernandez, whose murder conviction was vacated following his prison suicide because it was being appealed. (Boston Herald)

Quincy police have charged the former treasurer of an elementary school parent-teacher organization with embezzling more than $28,000 from the group. She allegedly spent the money on items such as trips to Disneyland and the Boston Opera House. (Patriot Ledger)

A Dorchester minister who offered a blessing for Gov. Charlie Baker at his church shortly after his 2014 election was one of 10 men arraigned yesterday on charges of soliciting prostitution services. (Boston Herald)

The owner of a tenant farm in Westport where state officials found scores of animals dead or living in deplorable conditions last summer pleaded not guilty to 21 counts of animal cruelty. (Herald News)

The New York Times has a long but fascinating piece about Ralph DeMasi, an aging Rhode Island mobster with a penchant for armored car robberies who is in jail awaiting trial for the 1991 murder of an armored car driver in Worcester.

MEDIA

The Boston Globe fine tunes its paywall to capture more digital subscribers. (Nieman Journalism Lab)

The New York Times is eliminating its public editor position. (Nieman Journalism Lab)

Print journalism continues its long slide, according to a Mary Meeker chart on the state of the internet. (Nieman Journalism Lab)