House Democrats look to protect online privacy of consumers

HARRISBURG, March 31 -- House Democrats will seek ways to restore online privacy protections for Pennsylvania residents after Republicans in Congress voted to allow telecom companies and other internet service providers to sell and share customers' web browsing history without their consent.

The mostly party-line vote by Congress does away with rules adopted by the Federal Communications Commission in October that required companies like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T to get customers' explicit permission before storing, sharing or selling sensitive data like Social Security numbers, health information, children's information, even the tracking of a person’s whereabouts from minute to minute.

The FCC rules also required internet service providers to inform consumers and law enforcement when a potential harmful data breach occurred.

"Donald Trump ran a populist campaign but his vision for the FCC and protecting consumers' privacy is shaping up to be the exact opposite," Democratic Leader Frank Dermody said. "These big companies want to change the rules midstream and Congress just voted to let them do it.

“Unless states like Pennsylvania take action, this powerful special interest will be allowed to exploit people's private information and personal browsing habits for its own profit. The consumers who our government is supposed to be working for will be left with no protection at all," he said.

Dermody noted that Congress passed the measure under the Congressional Review Act, which allows lawmakers in Washington to undo any federal regulation within 60 days of its finalization and bars the agency from writing similar rules in the future.

"This leaves consumers without recourse when the consequences of this disastrous vote start to hurt them," he said.

Dermody said House Democrats are exploring avenues to put into state law many of the privacy and online protections that Congress just eliminated. He said the caucus would like to work with the state Attorney General's Office to develop legislation and ensure it can be enforced.

"Internet service providers are the onramp to the information superhighway," Dermody said. "Every day, they gain access to people's personal information -- some of it very sensitive -- due to the nature of the service they provide. Rather than being taken for a ride, consumers should be in the driver's seat when it comes to deciding if and how that information is used."

Measures to be included in the legislative package would include commonsense privacy and consumer protection rules such as:

-- Requiring internet service providers to notify customers about what types of information they collect, how and for what purposes the ISP shares the information, and with whom. ISPs would have to provide this information when consumers sign up for service and whenever changes are made to privacy policies.

-- Requiring providers to obtain affirmative "opt-in" permission from consumers before using or sharing their sensitive information. Sensitive information includes things such as precise geographic location, children's information, health information, financial information, Social Security numbers, web browsing history, app usage history and the contents of online communication.

-- Requiring providers to offer consumers a way to opt out of the sharing of non-sensitive information.

-- Prohibiting providers from refusing to offer service to consumers who don't opt in to the use and sharing of their information for commercial purposes.

-- Requiring providers to notify consumers in a timely manner when a data breach occurs and sensitive online information may be compromised.

"These and other potential measures we are considering would retain the flexibility providers need to improve their service, such as targeting ads and services based on browsing habits." Dermody said. "Many people enjoy and benefit from these innovations.

"But we must balance innovation with the need to protect people's privacy and personal information. Consumers should have a meaningful choice about whether they want to allow private companies to monetize and profit from their personal data.

"Washington may be willing to give away these protections but we are not," he said. "House Democrats want to make sure Pennsylvania is working to protect the privacy and security of consumers and their families, not helping big corporations exploit people's personal information to make a few wealthy CEOs and shareholders even richer."