Republican-Backed Privacy Bill to Protect Restrictions on Sharing Browser History

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Marsha Blackburn
Marsha Blackburn Credit: Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons

Rep. Marsha Blackburn sponsored a bill Thursday that would increase restrictions on consumer data use by both internet service providers and so-called "edge providers" such as Google and Facebook.

If passed, the ''Balancing the Rights of Web Surfers Equally and Responsibly Act of 2017'' -- comprising the convoluted acronym "BROWSER" act of 2017' -- would require ISPs or other digital players such as social platforms, digital publishers or mobile app providers, to obtain opt-in consent from people in order to use, disclose, or permit access to their sensitive information.

Blackburn's bill would require companies to provide opt-outs for use of non-sensitive data. Sensitive user information, according to the bill, would not only include financial and health data, but web browsing and app usage history. Such data is the lifeblood of digital ad audience targeting and has historically been treated as non-sensitive data by the digital media and advertising industries. The bill also defines "precise geo-location data" as sensitive.

The FCC's own privacy rules for ISPs, which Blackburn voted to dismantle in March, created controversy by requiring opt-in consent for use of geographic location data, browsing history and app-usage information.

The Blackburn bill also gives oversight to the Federal Trade Commission, an arguably weaker agency than the FCC. Unlike the Communications Commission, the Trade Commission does not have rulemaking authority.

"Throughout the debate around the FCC's privacy rules, the one main talking point against those rules was that it provided an unlevel playing field for ISPs," said Chris Pedigo, senior VP government affairs at Digital Content Next, a trade group representing digital publishers. "This bill from Marsha Blackburn is part of a response from what she heard from her constituents."

Indeed, the demise of the ISP privacy rules caused such an outcry among everyday citizens that state legislators responded by proposing a slew of privacy bills for states including Minnesota, Nevada, Illinois, Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Montana and Washington. It appears that none of those bills have passed yet.

While Blackburn's bill is not likely to gain serious momentum soon, said Pedigo, her position as the head of the House Communications and technology Subcommittee could help propel it.

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