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.”



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