Politics

Alaska's lawmakers talk about their votes to repeal internet privacy regulation

WASHINGTON — Members of Alaska's congressional delegation say that while they share many Alaskans' concerns about privacy, they were not enticed to vote against overturning a regulation aimed at limiting customer data collected by internet service providers.

All three members of the delegation — Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young — are Republicans and voted with their party to pass a Congressional Review Act resolution to overturn a Federal Communications Commission regulation issued at the tail end of the Obama administration in October 2016.

The vote fell along party lines. President Donald Trump is expected to soon sign it into law.

The rule would have required internet service providers (ISPs) to get consent from users before collecting information from their web browsing history for any purpose, including advertising.

Other internet companies like Google and Facebook don't have to do the same; though they have more limited access to browsing history, they do use the information they gather to make money advertising to users.

Murkowski, Sullivan and Young for the most part said that their concerns about piecemeal regulations outweighed their desire to protect individuals' data.

"So we looked at this one very carefully. Where I came down on it at the end was: What this rule did was it set up basically two standards depending on what the platform was. And that made no sense," Murkowski said after voting in favor of repealing the FCC rule. "It would have created confusion."

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The Congressional Review Act allows Congress, with a simple majority vote of both chambers and approval from the president, to overturn any major regulation finalized within the last 60 legislative days. Rarely does the chance come along for changeover in parties.

Nevertheless, the CRA is a blunt instrument: The Trump administration (or any after it) may not craft any regulation that is substantially similar to one revoked.

Like most of the rules that Congress has recently gone after under the CRA in the last two months, this one never actually took effect. So that means that effectively, nothing changes. ISPs are collecting citizens' data no more than they ever were.

Proponents of the rule say it was an important step toward keeping internet providers from selling customers' data, from browser history to location information. Many saw it as a major starting point toward giving people control over their own presence on the internet.

But Republicans — including several FCC commissioners who voted against the rule in October — say the rule is lopsided, placing limits on some companies but not others.

Asked about his vote on Thursday, Young was brief: "They asked me for my vote," he said in explanation of his "yes" vote on the CRA resolution. "They," he clarified, meant Republican leadership.

"That's it," he said.

Young's spokesman Matt Shuckerow later sent along another statement from the congressman, where he said that he had brought questions and concerns to House leadership, and ultimately "decided to vote for it."

"To be clear, this resolution does not take away people's' privacy rights and it does not eliminate any current privacy protections – because the FCC's regulations have not gone into effect," Young said in the statement, and called the regulation "a major bureaucratic power grab by the FCC that would have created a patchwork of policies regulating internet privacy."

Sullivan too pointed out that repealing the recently passed rule would have no immediate impact for consumers.

"You have to remember, these CRAs, what we're doing is we're just rolling back the last six months" of the Obama administration, Sullivan said. "And so we were doing fine without that regulation," he said.

Sullivan said he had looked into privacy concerns, and "thought that it still covered the importance of privacy issues but also letting the ability of that important sector of the economy grow and have opportunity. So I thought the balance was good."

Murkowski said she struggled with deciding how to vote on revoking the rule, because privacy concerns are common among Alaskans.

She said she does think there should be something more in place to ensure people's privacy online — but not this regulation.

"My expectation as an individual, is that yeah, this information is protected. And I want to know that it's protected regardless of where it is — whether you're going through Google or wherever it is, there's that expectation of privacy," she said.

Whether it should be through regulation or statute, she said she didn't know.

"We have done a fair job of raising the issue, but not so impressive when it comes to actual solutions. So yes, I think that there have to be solutions," Murkowski said.

Erica Martinson

Erica Martinson is a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News based in Washington, D.C.

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