Trump Completes Repeal of Online Privacy Protections From Obama Era


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A cellphone user in New York in 2015. President Trump signed a resolution Monday that will allow broadband internet service suppliers to track and sell a customer’s online information with greater ease.

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Todd Heisler/The New York Times

President Trump on Monday signed a congressional resolution to complete the overturning of internet privacy protections created by the Federal Communications Commission during the Obama administration.

The change will allow broadband internet service suppliers, such as cable and telecommunications companies, to track and sell a customer’s online information with greater ease.

The Republican opponents of the Obama-era rules, which would have gone into effect later this year, said they would have unfairly placed restrictions on broadband providers, like Verizon and Comcast, that were more stringent than those on internet companies, like Google and Facebook.

The rules, approved in October when a majority of the commissioners were Democrats, would have required broadband companies to receive permission before collecting data on a user’s online activities.

Some technology policy experts said jettisoning the rules would allow broadband providers to collect customers’ internet browsing histories and other personal data and sell them to advertisers with little government oversight or fear of enforcement. Self-regulation and market competition, they said, may not sufficiently protect consumers.

“This is a repeal with no replacement,” said Danny Weitzner, director of the M.I.T. Internet Policy Research Initiative, who was a technology policy official in the Obama administration.

Broadband companies, privacy experts said, occupy a different position than internet companies. Google and Facebook, they noted, are corporate giants with plenty of market clout. But they are not a fundamental pathway to the internet the way the broadband providers are. And, privacy experts said, there is little or no competition for broadband service in many markets.

“You can live without Google or Facebook,” said Dallas Harris, a legal and policy fellow at Public Knowledge, a nonprofit consumer group. “It’s pretty difficult to walk away from internet service altogether.”

The privacy practices of internet companies are overseen by the Federal Trade Commission, while broadband providers fall under the F.C.C. Since the 1990s, the trade commission has policed the privacy practices of internet companies under its mandate to protect consumers from “unfair and deceptive practices.”

The F.T.C. requires internet companies to have privacy policies that the agency finds acceptable, and it conducts investigations into violations. Privacy advocates have criticized the trade commission for giving the companies too much freedom.

“It is lightweight regulation, but there is a real enforcement backstop as well,” Mr. Weitzner said.

Broadband carriers all have privacy policies. They can be sued by private plaintiffs and investigated by Congress, as they were about a decade ago, when an intrusive surveillance technique of personal data trails, known as deep packet inspection, came to light.

Just how valuable data collection may be for broadband companies is uncertain. Online advertising can be a lucrative, high-profit business. That is why Verizon, for example, bought AOL and is in the process of acquiring Yahoo’s internet assets.

Yet Google and Facebook account for two-thirds of online ad revenue, and their share of the market is growing. “The challenge is that Google and Facebook dominate this market,” said Paul Gallant, an analyst at Cowen & Company.

The broadband suppliers have “valuable, anonymized profiles of users,” Mr. Gallant said, adding, “But it’s not clear what the size of the market for the raw data is.”

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