A key leader on the House Energy & Commerce Committee is shaking up a narrative that has been perpetuated for months by some self-proclaimed defenders of consumer privacy rights online. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Chairman of the Communications and Technology Subcommittee, recently introduced legislation that would require a broad range of internet businesses to provide “clear and conspicuous” notice of their privacy policies and to ensure that consumers have tools to govern how personal information collected about them is used.
Notably, Blackburn was also at the forefront of a successful effort to nullify a broadband privacy order pushed through the FCC last fall by former Chairman Tom Wheeler. That utilization of the levers of the Congressional Review Act led to a firestorm of criticism – a “Chicken Little-like reaction” according to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai and Acting Federal Trade Commission Chairman (FTC) Maureen Ohlhausen. In an op-ed explaining why privacy rights were not actually in the cross-hairs, the agency chairmen said, “April Fools’ Day came early last week, as professional lobbyists lit a wildfire of misinformation about Congress’s action.”
Chairman Blackburn believes her new bill, the BROWSER Act (H.R.2520), will address two major flaws of the Obama-era FCC’s action. In a release accompanying introduction of the legislation, she explained that the FCC’s “blatant power grab” had caused confusion by inserting the agency into the traditional consumer privacy jurisdiction of the FTC. The BROWSER Act names the FTC as the nation’s only privacy enforcer. It also ensures that broadband providers and “edge providers” like Google and Facebook, which she noted had been ignored by the FCC even though they “collect as much, if not more data, than ISPs,” come under the same regulatory framework. Blackburn explained, “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.”
While a number of organizations have reserved judgement thus far, a trade association of technology companies including Google, Facebook, and other edge providers has expressed concern. A spokesman for the Internet Association, which also favors the Obama administration “net neutrality” order poised to be rolled back at the FCC, said the BROWSER Act “has the potential to upend the consumer experience online and stifle innovation.” For her part, Blackburn shot back this week by telling a reporter from The Hill, “I thought the Internet Association would be more supportive of protecting consumers. I think 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."
By Aaron Mercer, Vice President of Government Relations
Published: May 26, 2017