Big broadband companies that chafed for years under the Obama administration’s Silicon Valley-friendly tech agenda have scored their first massive win in Donald Trump’s Washington.
This week’s congressional repeal of federal broadband privacy rules — meant to block internet providers from using or selling customers’ web browsing history without their consent — was an unmistakable sign of the telecom industry’s resurgence. Big ISPs like Comcast and Verizon drew support from almost every Senate Republican and conservative groups backed by Charles and David Koch.
They also got a surprising assist from groups representing big tech firms like Google and Facebook, which feared that similar regulations could someday curtail their own ability to harvest their users’ data.
The powerful telecom industry moved fast to capitalize on Trump’s election victory. Just a week into the Trump administration, ISPs and their trade groups began to position the Federal Communications Commission’s privacy rules, passed days before the 2016 election, as an example of government overreach ripe for repeal. Out of hundreds of late Obama-era rules that could be vulnerable to congressional rollback, the FCC regulation is one of several that lawmakers have moved to kill through resolutions that have reached Trump’s desk.
“We’ve been very active on this since November,” one broadband industry lobbyist told POLITICO. “We put together this broader ad hoc coalition that basically represented the entire ecosystem. That’s, to me, the seminal thing that really gave us momentum.”
To consumer advocates who supported the FCC rules and urged internet users to weigh in against the GOP effort, Congress’ swift repeal was yet another example of corporations outweighing the interests of ordinary Americans.
“I’m fairly certain there was not one call from a constituent that said pass this [resolution] right away,” said Dallas Harris, policy fellow at consumer group Public Knowledge. “Clearly, internet service providers and tech companies pulled enough muscle to kind of overthrow the will of the people.”
Another factor, she acknowledged, was that the public had already been inundated with warnings about eroding civil liberties in the first few months of the Trump administration.
“It was really hard to get this message across in such a noisy environment,” she said.
Trump is expected to sign off on the repeal in the coming days. That means the nation’s strongest-ever internet privacy rules are about to be history, before they could even take effect.
Tech and telecom groups fought against the FCC rules as soon as they were first proposed last March, but prospects for blocking them appeared dim as long as Democrats dominated the FCC and Hillary Clinton was favored to take the White House.
Once Trump won, however, the industry turned its focus to Capitol Hill, in a campaign led by groups such as the 21st Century Privacy Coalition, which spent $1.2 million on lobbying in 2016, according to federal disclosures.
Trade groups like NCTA-The Internet and Television Association, the Information Technology Industry Council and the Data & Marketing Association also pushed for lawmakers to make the privacy rules a top target for the Congressional Review Act — the once-obscure legislative tool that Republican lawmakers were eager to leverage to undo Obama administration legacies.
The industry effort was bolstered by free-market organizations, including Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform and the Koch-backed American Commitment, as well as advertising industry groups and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Consumer groups and Democrats tried to fight back, painting the repeal as brazenly anti-consumer and arguing it will allow telecom companies to run amok with user data. (Other privacy regulators, like the Federal Trade Commission, are barred from policing broadband companies’ privacy practices.)
The telecom industry, though, said the FCC rules are overly strict and could confuse consumers, and repeatedly sought to quash what they saw as liberal “myths.”
“It’s always easier for one side to create a parade of horribles, but when you track back what the charges are they almost never reflect what ISPs are actually doing,” NCTA Executive Vice President James Assey told reporters before the House vote on Tuesday.
Industry groups felt they had an ace up their sleeve: For once, a broad coalition of groups representing various parts of the internet ecosystem were all aligned against the FCC’s rules. Telecom companies and Silicon Valley firms often find themselves feuding on policies like net neutrality, but their alliance on privacy was key in helping the measure advance, multiple lobbyists said.
“In our meetings there was no daylight between our focus and the telecom folks’,” said one tech industry lobbyist who pushed the resolution.
Lawmakers such as Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who were on record as opposing the rules, introduced resolutions in their respective chambers to ax the regulations, and they found their GOP colleagues eager to go along. In a sign of the broad Republican support for the measure, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell signed his name to Flake’s measure in early March.
Consumer groups and other supporters of the FCC’s privacy rules responded with an aggressive campaign to oppose the repeal. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), one of the House’s top privacy advocates, blasted the Republican effort earlier this week in a voter-directed Facebook live chat. And organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation drove tens of thousands of calls to Congress in the day before Tuesday’s 215-205 House vote, according to people familiar with the effort.
But none of that was enough, a factor that the rules’ opponents attribute to their months of campaigning.
“We’d been talking to congressional offices on this for six months and we weren’t going in blind,” said Vince Jesaitis, ITIC’s vice president of government affairs. “We’d laid that groundwork.”
Margaret Harding McGill and Theodoric Meyer contributed to this report.
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