WASHINGTON - The House voted Tuesday to block online privacy regulations issued during the final months of the Obama administration, a first step toward allowing internet providers such as Comcast, AT&T and Verizon to sell the browsing habits of their customers.
The Federal Communications Commission rule was designed to give consumers greater control over how internet service providers share information. But critics said the rule would have added costs, stifled innovation and picked winners and losers among Internet companies.
The House voted 215-205 to reject the rule, and sent the legislation to President Donald Trump for his signature. The vote is part of an extensive effort that Republicans have undertaken to void an array of regulations issued during the final months of Democratic President Barack Obama's tenure. But the vote was closer this time than previous rescind efforts, with 15 Republicans siding with Democrats in the effort to keep the rule in place.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the Republican-led effort was about putting profits over the privacy concerns of Americans.
"Overwhelmingly, the American people do not agree with Republicans that this information should be sold, and it certainly should not be sold without your permission," Pelosi said. "Our broadband providers know deeply personal information about us and our families."
Internet companies like Google don't have to ask users' permission before tracking what sites they visit. Republicans and industry groups have blasted that discrepancy, saying it was unfair and confusing for consumers.
But proponents of the privacy measure argued that the company that sells you your internet connection can see even more about consumers, such as every website they visit and whom they exchange emails with.
Undoing the FCC regulation leaves people's online information in a murky area. Experts say federal law still requires broadband providers to protect customer information -- but it doesn't spell out how or what companies must do. That's what the FCC rule aimed to do.
The Trump-appointed chairman of the FCC, Ajit Pai, is a critic of the broadband privacy rules and has said he wants to roll them back. He and other Republicans want a different federal agency, the Federal Trade Commission, to police privacy for both broadband companies like AT&T and internet companies like Google. GOP lawmakers said they cared about consumer privacy every bit as much as Democrats did.
"What America needs is one standard across the internet ecosystem and the Federal Trade Commission is the best place for that standard," said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore.
Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy of California said the FTC has acted as America's online privacy regulator since the dawn of the internet. He called the rule an effort to strip the agency of that role.
"The internet has become the amazing tool that it is because it is largely left untouched by regulation -- and that shouldn't stop now," McCarthy said.
Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder of Kansas parted ways with his Republican colleagues on the issue. He said the privacy protections were "commonsense measures" that would have ensured internet users continue to have control over their personal information.
"We don't want the government having access to our information without our consent, and the same goes for private business," Yoder said.
Broadband providers don't currently fall under FTC jurisdiction, and advocates say the FTC has historically been a weaker agency than the FCC.
The American Civil Liberties Union urged Trump to veto the resolution, appealing to his populist side.
"President Trump now has the opportunity to veto this resolution and show he is not just a president for CEOs but for all Americans," said the ACLU's Neema Singh Guliani.
Republicans repeatedly discounted the privacy benefits generated by the rule. Over the last two months, they've voted to repeal more than a dozen Obama-era regulations in the name of curbing government overreach. The criticism of their efforts was particularly harsh Tuesday.
"Lawmakers who voted in favor of this bill just sold out the American people to special interests," said Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo.