Money & Politics

Selling Out Internet Privacy: Members of Congress Were Well-Compensated for Their Votes

Money in politics researchers find that the more a politician got in contributions from the telecomm industry, the more likely he or she was to vote in favor of allowing ISPs to sell their customers' data.

Selling Out Internet Privacy

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) was one of the leading proponents of the recent legislation allowing ISPs to sell customer data. She has received close to $564,000 from the telecom industry over the course of her House career. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr cc 2.0)

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The House’s vote Tuesday approving a resolution that would allow internet service providers to sell data about their customers’ browsing history split nearly along party lines. The final vote was 215-205, with nine members not voting.

The Democrats voted against the resolution as a block. On the Republican side, 15 members split from their party and opposed the bill.

(To skip straight to the data, click here.)

The resolution — which was approved by the Senate last week — blocks a Federal Communications Commission rule that would bar ISPs from selling customer data, including app usage, browsing history, even Social Security numbers, to marketers and others. Widely praised by privacy and consumer advocates when it was finalized last year, the rule hadn’t yet taken effect. Now — assuming President Trump signs it, as he’s expected to — it won’t.

And not only that, but under the terms of the Congressional Review Act, which was the mechanism used by Congress to negate the rule, no such rule can ever be issued again.

Here’s the short version of how we got here: The Federal Trade Commission regulates most of the internet, including companies like Google and Facebook. When it comes to privacy, the FTC generally prohibits unfair or deceptive trade practices. But the FTC has no authority over “common carriers” — a designation that applies to internet service providers, thanks in part to a ruling by the FCC (different agency, similar acronym) two years ago classifying high-speed internet as an essential telecommunications service.

Companies like AT&T, Comcast and others — many of which spend millions of dollars lobbying Washington every year — have chafed under the FCC’s privacy law, which is stronger and more specific than the FTC’s. The FCC generally prohibits carriers from using customer info for marketing purposes without the consent of customers. Left vague, though, were issues like what info was covered, and what constitutes “consent.” That’s where the rule finalized last year enters the picture. It specifies that the providers can’t sell a customer’s web browsing history or app usage, among other data, without consent. And it prohibits the companies from using an “opt-out” definition of consent; customers would affirmatively have to give their permission for their data to be shared.

The industry has basically argued that it shouldn’t have to abide by requirements that are more stringent than those that apply to Google, Facebook and similar companies. It has been using a group it formed two years ago, the 21st Century Privacy Coalition (whose purpose seems to cut against its name) to help argue its case.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican and vocal proponent of killing the rule, said this week that allowing the FTC and FCC to regulate different parts of the internet will “create confusion within the internet ecosystem and end up harming consumers.”

Critics of that view say it’s hard to see how stronger protection of consumer privacy will hurt those consumers. In addition, ISPs “provide an essential service,” said Laura Moy, a visiting law professor at Georgetown University and expert on technology and the law — and many Americans have little or no choice about their providers. “Maybe the answer is to regulate everyone more closely.”

Without the rule, the old statutory language — with its relative vagueness about consent and what information is governed — will apply. Given that the FCC is now chaired by a Republican, Ajit Pai, who strongly objected to the agency’s reclassification of the internet two years ago, it’s possible that providers will be able to take actions that push the envelope more than in previous years, critics fear.

It’s clear, though, that a great many Americans are unhappy that Congress has voted to kill a rule that is titled “Protecting the Privacy of Customers of Broadband and Other Telecommunications Services” — and that could have an impact down the line.

“I think even many Republican constituents whose reps voted to quash the rule are really outraged,” said Moy. “If the reaction to this is any indicator, it could be politically impossible” to do things like revoke rules mandating net neutrality, another Obama-era legacy that Pai and other Republicans would like to dismantle.

Finally, the data

We took a look at the contributions received by members of the House and Senate from the telecom industry,

Here’s what we found: On the House side, while there wasn’t a huge difference in overall funds received by lawmakers voting for or against the resolution, there was a gap in the Republican vote. GOP lawmakers who voted to quash the rule received an average of $138,000 from the industry over the course of their careers.

The 15 Republicans voting nay? They got just $77,000.

Some Dems were quite popular targets for industry contributions. Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, for instance, who is the second-highest ranking Democrat in the House, has received more than $1.3 million from telecom interests in the course of his long career, more than all but two House members; he received almost $190,000 in the 2016 cycle alone.

Still, he voted against the bill, as did South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn ($968,000 career), California Rep. Anna Eshoo ($864,000) and every other Democrat.

We can’t know if they objected to the bill on its merits, or they wanted to oppose the Republican agenda in all its manifestations, or what other motivations they might have had. Similarly, the yea-voting Republicans might have been on board for the bill because they oppose regulation in most forms, or they wanted to be team players, or for some other reason.

Blackburn has received close to $564,000 from the telecom industry over the course of her House career.

Nine House members — six Republicans and three Democrats — didn’t vote on the measure.

Over in the Senate, where the vote last week was strictly along party lines, the 50 Republicans voting for the bill had received an average of $368,648 from the industry during their congressional careers. The 48 Democrats who voted against it took in $329,180, about 11 percent less. Two senators — Rand Paul of Kentucky and John Isakson of Georgia, both Republicans — didn’t cast votes.

Details are here. See tabs. Happy digging.