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Trump signs bill to repeal Obama-era internet privacy protections

US president Donald Trump approves the repeal of planned privacy protections, opening the way for ISPs to sell customer browsing data

US president Donald Trump has signed a bill to repeal internet privacy rules adopted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in August 2016 that would have given internet users greater control over what internet service providers (ISPs) can do with their data.

Although the US House of Representatives followed the Senate in voting to repeal online privacy protections architected by the Obama administration that were due to come into effect by the end of 2017, those opposed to move had urged the US president to veto the resolution.

But Trump was widely expected to approve the move after the White House said the planned privacy rules “apply very different regulatory regimes” to different online companies. 

The repeal bill used the Congressional Review Act to prevent the privacy rules from taking effect, provoking anger and concern by privacy campaigners because ISPs in the US will no longer need consent from users to sell their browsing history, personal information and location data with advertisers and other third parties.

This data is valuable to advertisers because it provides insights into people’s shopping habits, political views, medical concerns, travel habits, sexual orientation and app usage.

“President Trump and US Congress have appropriately invalidated one part of the Obama-era plan for regulating the internet,” said Ajit Pai, newly appointed chairman of the FCC.

“Those flawed privacy rules, which never went into effect, were designed to benefit one group of favoured companies, not online consumers,” he said in a statement.

Despite supporting the repeal, Pai said the FCC would work to ensure that consumers’ online privacy is protected though a consistent and comprehensive framework.

He said the FCC would work with the Federal Trade Commission “to restore the FTC’s authority to police internet service providers’ privacy practices. We need to put America’s most experienced and expert privacy cop back on the beat. We need to end the uncertainty and confusion that was created in 2015 when the FCC intruded in this space,” he said.

Supporters said the move will increase competition by giving ISPs access to the lucrative advertising market currently dominated by the likes of Google and Facebook, but opponents say it will have the opposite effect by concentrating power in the hands of a few ISPs.

ISPs argue that allowing them to track browsing activities and share that information will enable them to provide more relevant advertising and get a better return on investments in broadband infrastructure.

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But privacy campaigners maintain that while consumers can choose whether or not to use Google or Facebook, they often do not have a choice when it comes to ISPs.

Having failed to persuade president Trump that it was a bad idea to help big corporate interests by eliminating US consumers’ privacy and weakening their cyber security, non-profit civil liberties group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), said it will continue working to encrypt the entire web and work harder on creating tools people can use to protect their privacy from their ISPs.

USTelecom CEO Jonathan Spalter welcomed Trump’s action, which he said affirmed US Congress’ decision to “hit the reset button” by stopping rules that would have created “a confusing and conflicting” consumer privacy framework.

“Consumers deserve and expect one consistent set of online privacy protections and this action helps clear the way for a more uniform approach across the entire internet ecosystem,” he said.

Spalter said the FCC’s commitment to modeling the FTC’s well-tested approach is “a meaningful step toward a consistent set of privacy protections that are pro-consumer and pro-innovation”.

“Consumers should feel confident that the steps taken today won’t change anything other than clearing the path for regulators to institute uniform privacy rules that will keep their sensitive information private and secure,” he said in a statement.

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