Politics & Government

Prefer privacy as you surf the web? Bills want providers to ask before selling data

Congress voted last month to end Federal Communications Commission rules that provided some privacy for internet users. Two measures in the state Legislature would give new life to some of those protections.
Congress voted last month to end Federal Communications Commission rules that provided some privacy for internet users. Two measures in the state Legislature would give new life to some of those protections. The Associated Press file, 2015

Don’t want Comcast or AT&T to sell your online search history without asking?

You have company in the state Legislature.

Lawmakers introduced a pair of bills Tuesday that would require internet service providers to get permission from users before selling personal information such as geographic location, internet history and app usage to marketers.

Similar rules approved in 2016 were to go into effect nationwide, but Congress voted last month to stop them, saying the restrictions were unfair, in part because Google, Facebook and other companies that collect internet data weren’t subject to the same regulations.

The White House has signaled it supports axing the Obama-era rules. But backlash against the vote has been fierce from many craving privacy in the internet age.

“Your internet access provider shouldn’t be able to sell your private information like your browsing history to the highest bidder,” said state Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, the prime sponsor of House Bill 2200. “If Congress isn’t willing to stop that from happening, then we in Washington state are absolutely going to act to protect our privacy.”

His legislation is patterned after the Obama administration rules and would be incorporated into the state’s Consumer Protection Act, which the state Attorney General’s office enforces.

It has more than a dozen Republican cosponsors, significant bipartisan support in the majority-Democrat state House.

There is interest in new internet data privacy rules in the state Senate, too.

A Senate bill similar to Hansen’s has 32 sponsors, including Republican Floor Leader Joe Fain of Auburn. The Senate has 49 lawmakers and is controlled by the GOP with the help of one conservative Democrat.

Even if the legislation doesn’t pass, some internet providers are trying to assuage their customers’ fears by saying they have no plans to trade your browsing history for cash.

“We do not sell our broadband customers’ individual web browsing history,” said Gerard Lewis, the chief general counsel and privacy officer of Comcast, in a statement on the company’s website. “We did not do it before the FCC’s (Federal Communication Commission) rules were adopted, and we have no plans to do so.”

Comcast says it also protects other sensitive data such as health and banking information.

Verizon and AT&T have issued similar statements.

Hansen said his legislation still is necessary in case the companies change their mind. If they do, “we absolutely want to get consent from the users” before companies market or sell private data, he said.

At least one state is already taking action to protect the sale of internet data.

In response to the congressional vote, both chambers in Minnesota’s Legislature passed legislation last week requiring that internet providers ask for permission before selling the personal data of customers.

Republicans have majorities in the House and Senate in that state.

Washington has no state laws governing the privacy practices of internet service providers, Alex Alben, the state’s chief privacy officer, said in an email.

He noted the attorney general’s office can prosecute companies for “unfair and deceptive actions” and the providers may have contracts with cities that contain privacy rules.

“I understand that consumers here are upset by the (federal) House and Senate votes,” Alben said. “In the absence of federal rules protecting consumers in this context, we are studying what we might do on the state level.”

State Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, said she expected wide support for new state regulations from both sides of the aisle on the topic. She is a cosponsor of the legislation and frequently works on data privacy legislation, such as pushing a bill requiring government officials to notify people and get their consent before collecting their biometric data.

“People are concerned about what’s happening in a big data economy and ought to be,” she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein