Trump Set to Overturn Online Privacy Protections, Stirring Debate

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U.S. President Donald Trump is poised to sign legislation overturning privacy protections for Internet users, a move supporters say will level the playing field for providers but critics argue will hurt consumers.

The bill eliminates Obama-era regulations that required Internet service providers, or ISPs, to get permission before collecting or selling sensitive user data, such as Internet browsing history.

Supporters say the bill will create a more even field for ISPs, which are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. Other Internet companies, such as Facebook and Google, are managed by the Federal Trade Commission, which places fewer restrictions on how they can collect and sell user data.

“Having two privacy cops on the beat will create confusion within the Internet ecosystem and will end up harming consumers,” said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee, on Tuesday.

Democrats, groups object

Supporters also argue that the reaction has been overblown, noting that the Obama-era FCC rules, which had been approved in December, hadn’t even been put in place yet.

The bill passed Congress this week with the overwhelming support of Republicans. White House officials have previously said Trump will sign the legislation, despite objections from Democrats and privacy advocate groups.

“This legislation will seriously undermine the privacy protections of the overwhelming majority of Americans who believe that their private information should be just that — private — and not for sale without their knowledge,” a group of 46 Democratic lawmakers said this week in a letter urging Trump to veto the bill.

Tom Wheeler, the former head of the FCC, wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times calling the repeal a “dream for cable and telephone companies, which want to capitalize on the value of such personal information.”

U.S. Internet companies have long profited from U.S. privacy regulations, which are generally considered weaker than those in parts of the developed world, such as the European Union.

Big companies make big money from data

Companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon “profit heavily from the mining of consumer data,” says Evan Swarztrauber with the Internet privacy advocacy group TechFreedom.

“It’s at least arguable that the U.S. has more successful tech firms than the EU because the U.S. has a more relaxed privacy framework, which allows for more innovation and experimentation,” he says.

But profit should not be the only consideration, according to critics, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group.

“Should President Donald Trump sign S.J. Res. 34 into law, big Internet providers will be given new powers to harvest your personal information in extraordinarily creepy ways,” Ernesto Falcon, a legislative counsel at EFF, said in an online post.

Bill has limited international impact

Falcon slammed lawmakers who “have decided to give our personal information to an already highly profitable cable and telephone industry so that they can increase their profits with our data.”

The bill itself has limited international impact. Falcon says the bigger concern for global web users is state-sponsored surveillance, such as that conducted by the NSA.

“No real amount of commercial deregulation or regulation would offset the loss of privacy rights that state-sponsored surveillance violates in terms of international issues,” he told VOA.

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