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Business/Economy

Alaska's big telecoms say they won't sell consumer data after Senate internet privacy vote

  • Author: Annie Zak
  • Updated: March 24
  • Published March 24

(Mike Segar / Reuters)

Consumer privacy advocates are concerned after the U.S. Senate on Thursday passed a resolution that will roll back privacy rules the Federal Communications Commission approved last year, but the two largest Alaska-based telecommunications companies say their customers won't be affected.

A win for the telecommunications industry, the measure would undo rules not yet in effect that would have provided "heightened protection for sensitive consumer information" and require internet service providers to get customer approval to use and share their data with companies such as advertisers.

That data include web browsing history, financial and health information, geolocation information and more.

The largest Alaska telecom, GCI, doesn't sell customer data and has no plans to do so in the future, said spokeswoman Heather Handyside.

"Privacy is very important to Alaskans and we respect that our customers place their trust in us, and we take that very seriously," she said. "We don't have a position on this, but we don't sell our customers' data."

Alaska Communications also said it does not sell or have plans to sell its customer data to third parties.

"It's unlikely that our company will be engaging in that in the future," said Leonard Steinberg, a senior vice president at the company. Asked if Alaska Communications supports tossing the rules approved in October, he said, "I think we are in favor of it."

Alaska Communications spokeswoman Hannah Blankenship said in an email that "while we don't have intentions to change our longstanding privacy policy, if we made changes, they would be reflected in the policy, available on our website."

She didn't speculate on how the company might inform consumers if such a situation ever came up, but said Alaska Communications is "committed to being transparent with our customers and would act accordingly."

The Alaska Telephone Association, an industry group that represents small phone and broadband providers as well as GCI and Alaska Communications, welcomed the vote.

"We're constantly struggling with pretty burdensome regulations that are really developed for the AT&T's and Googles of the world, and most of us up here are small providers," said ATA executive director Christine O'Connor. "It's costly for us to comply. … I'm very comfortable with having these rules removed."

All Republican lawmakers who cast a vote Thursday voted in favor of the resolution, including Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan. Republicans have said the rules put unfair regulations on telecom companies "but not on web companies such as Facebook and Google that also provide access to online content," The New York Times reported. No Democrats voted yes.

The American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday voiced disapproval of the resolution.

"It is extremely disappointing that the Senate voted today to sacrifice the privacy rights of Americans in the interest of protecting the profits of major internet companies, including Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon," said ACLU legislative counsel Neema Singh Guliani in a statement. "The resolution would undo privacy rules that ensure consumers control how their most sensitive information is used."

Sullivan's spokesman, Mike Anderson, said in an email that the senator "believes that all aspects of the Internet should be required to protect consumer information and governed by a consistent privacy framework so that consumers know how their information is being protected at all times," and, "this resolution allows the government agencies to work together on a privacy framework that strikes the proper balance between privacy and innovation."

Murkowski "believes that regulators and Congress need to work together on a holistic solution that creates a level playing field when it comes to consumer privacy, not the confusion created by multiple regimes," said spokeswoman Karina Petersen in an email.

The resolution passed with a 50-48 vote. The New York Times reported the measure is expected to pass the House next week, and President Trump is expected to sign it.

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