Tennessee Lawmaker Takes on Facebook to Protect Privacy

The FTC announced last week it had opened an official, non-public investigation into Facebook’s privacy practices after the company allowed access to consumers’ information to a third party.

Not only does this data-sharing represent a violation of users’ trust, but it most likely violates a consent decree imposed on Facebook after it settled a similar FTC investigation in 2011.

To prevent another scandal from occurring, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) is calling for Congress to implement universal privacy standards that would apply to ISPs (like Comcast) and web companies (like Facebook and Google).

“I would ask [Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg] if he would agree to privacy standards that are in statute, federal statute, that he would agree to one set of privacy standards for the entire ecosystem – both your Internet service providers and your edge providers,” said Blackburn, who serves as Chairman of the Communications and Technology Subcommittee.

Blackburn was among Republicans who voted to overturn FCC privacy rules earlier this year but has since introduced legislation that would fix two main problems with the FCC’s rules. Dubbed the BROWSER Act, Blackburn’s bill would eliminate jurisdiction confusion by establishing the FTC (not the FCC) as the only online privacy enforcer and create a “fair privacy playing field” by bringing all entities (ISPs and edge providers) under the same rules.

The BROWSER Act would require all companies to obtain users’ permission before sharing or selling personal information, including web-browsing history and precise location data, with third parties, and would prohibit companies from forcing users to opt in to data sharing to use their services.

“We must offer American citizens real Internet privacy, not mere lip service which gives Internet users false expectations about their level of online security. I encourage all House members who are serious about protecting our constituents’ online privacy to join me in advancing this bill.”

Blackburn has been unable to find support from Democrats, who want to use Internet privacy as one of their own issues during the midterm elections.

“Republicans made every point to get rid of the FCC privacy provisions, and at this point, I don’t think that their efforts are credible,” argues Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ).

Some lawmakers don’t like Blackburn’s proposal because they believe the FCC is better equipped than the FTC to regulate the Internet, and others see the bill as a direct response to public outcry over her vote to repeal the FCC’s rules.

“She’s only introduced this bill – which she probably doesn’t even intend to pass – because her constituents are so angry at her for voting to gut privacy rules,” says Fight the Future founder Holmes Wilson. Earlier this year, Fight the Future paid for billboard ads accusing Blackburn of betraying constituents by repealing the FCC’s Internet privacy rules.

Editor’s note: The devil is in the details. If poorly done, then purveyors of this kind of information merely have to change their privacy policy, which makes no difference to anyone. If properly done, then an actively engaged public will be able to determine how data is shared, and be able to protect their own privacy.

If its the latter, it really screws up the Facebook business model, as well as almost every other online business. But it might be worth it.

About Alice Green

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