Flake, Sensenbrenner Experience Early Pushback to Broadband Privacy Repeal

Republican lawmakers are already experiencing backlash over the recent repeal of the Federal Communications Commission’s broadband privacy rules, with Sen. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (Wis.) facing pointed questions at town halls in the past week.

“I had hoped you and [fellow Arizona Republican] Sen. [John] McCain would be the rational voice in irrational times, but then I saw you betray that confidence — you sold my privacy up the river,” one constituent said to raucous and prolonged applause at a town hall Flake held in Mesa, Ariz., last week.

Flake introduced the resolution that used the Congressional Review Act to repeal the FCC’s privacy rules, which would have required internet service providers to receive explicit consent from consumers before selling data, including web browsing history, app usage history and personal information like geolocation information, to third-party entities. President Donald Trump signed that resolution into law April 3 after Republicans in the House and Senate passed the measure.

Flake defended the move, saying the Federal Trade Commission should have jurisdiction over the privacy practices of broadband companies as well as companies like Facebook (edge providers), and that there should be “uniform privacy regulation across the internet.”

Sensenbrenner gave a more pointed response during a recent town hall with Wisconsin constituents. One attendee explained to the lawmaker that although the GOP has argued both edge providers and ISPs should be subject to the same regulation, she only has one option for an internet service provider.

“I have one choice — I don’t have to go on Google, [but] my ISP provider is different from those providers,” the woman told Sensenbrenner.

“Nobody’s got to use the internet,” Sensenbrenner said. “I don’t think it’s my job to tell you that you cannot get advertising for your information being sold. My job, I think, is to tell you that you have the opportunity to do it, and then you take it upon yourself to make the choice.”

The Twitter account of Sensenbrenner’s press office later reiterated the point that “nobody has to use the internet.”

That’s a view seemingly at odds with that of Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. He’s said bringing internet access to all Americans is crucial so that everyone has the opportunities connectivity brings for work, job hunting, health care and other day-to-day functions.

“One of the most significant things I’ve seen during my time here is that there is a digital divide in this country — between those who can use from cutting-edge communications services and those who do not,” Pai told FCC officials when he first became chairman. “We must work to bring the benefits of the digital age to all Americans.”

The United Nations considers internet access a human right related to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The United States signed on to the 2016 resolution declaring it as such.

Privacy is another concern for critics of the FCC rules repeal. At Flake’s town hall, one man said big data analytics are powerful enough in the modern day to identify an individual household, and details such as religious preferences and sexual activities.

Flake repeated the argument that it’s the job of the Federal Trade Commission to protect private information. That should be contingent on its sensitivity, not whether it is an edge or a broadband provider, Flake added. But constituents shouted at him throughout his response.

A Morning Consult survey released last week showed voters split on Flake’s performance, with 44 percent approving of the senator and 38 percent disapproving. In a September 2016 Morning Consult survey, 41 percent approved of Flake and 35 percent disapproved.

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