When Republicans used the Congressional Review Act this year to roll back Internet privacy regulations drafted during the Obama administration, they found themselves on the receiving end of attacks from Democrats, constituents, and even late-night TV hosts.
The regulations proposed by the Federal Communications Commission would have required Internet service providers to obtain consent from users before they collected and used their information to sell advertising.
GOP lawmakers were accused of eliminating privacy protections for consumers, and, after the vote, billboards sprouted up in Republican districts warning that, under the influence of big money from Internet service providers, lawmakers sold out.
Following the outcry, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., who introduced the resolution in the House repealing the privacy regulations, thought she had a solution that would please Republicans and Democrats alike: a bill requiring providers such as Google and Facebook, as well as Internet service providers, to obtain a user’s consent — to opt-in — before collecting and selling their information for marketing.
Now, despite attempts by Blackburn to drum up support for the legislation, called the Browser Act, House Democrats have balked at backing her plan.
“I don’t know what’s in her bill,” Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., told Politico this month. “All I know is that she led the charge on ripping privacy protections away from every single American on the Internet. I think that’s the reason she introduced another bill. This is C.Y.A.”
Blackburn, chairwoman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Communications and Technology subcommittee, has tried to gain Democratic support for her bill, though her efforts have largely gone unanswered.
Last month, the Tennessee Republican’s office reached out to all Democratic offices asking for co-sponsors, and Blackburn sent a letter detailing the proposal to her colleagues across the aisle.
So far, though, her legislation has only four cosponsors, and they’re all Republicans.
“What I’m hearing from my counterparts is many of them will say, ‘Yes, something does need to be done,’ and many of them agree that it should be focused on opt-in,” Blackburn told the Washington Examiner. “But they are resisting, I think, coming on to a Republican bill. They would like for it to be a Democratic bill. I want it to be a bipartisan bill so that we can get something that will work out, stay on the books, and address the issue.”
Bipartisanship, though, has proven to be a difficult task.
Late last month, Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., who sits on the subcommittee Blackburn heads, said he disliked Blackburn’s bill because it shifted jurisdiction for Internet privacy to the Federal Trade Commission and accused his Republican colleague of being new to the Internet privacy sandbox.
“Marsha is kind of a new convert to this privacy debate,” he said.
Blackburn shot back on her Twitter account and said she “started on privacy years ago.”
“Happy to chat,” she told Doyle.
Doyle’s office did not return requests for comment.
Blackburn said the opposition she has faced from Democrats is more a sign of the current political environment, where partisanship is heightened and rhetoric sharp.
“It’s disappointing because they know that something needs to be done,” she said. “I spent two years co-chairing the privacy working group, and I did that with [Democratic Rep.] Peter Welch. It was a way for our committee to really get into the weeds on the issue of privacy and data security, and it was disappointing to me that after we spent all of this time and those years working on it, that they don’t want to come to the table.”
Outside the walls of Congress, though, others are skeptical about Blackburn’s bill.
Jonathon Hauenschild, who leads the communications and technology task force at the American Legislative Exchange Council, said the legislation “misstates or presumes incorrectly the online ecosystem.”
“When you’re looking at the ecosystem, once consumers understand the benefits of the use of anonymized consumer data, they’re willing to accept that trade,” he told the Washington Examiner.
But Hauenschild agreed with Blackburn on the issue of jurisdiction and said the FTC, instead of the FCC, should oversee privacy rules.
“[The] best course of action is putting the responsibility for respecting consumer privacy to the agency that has been doing it since the 1970s,” he said. “It’s ensuring that one agency, one commission in this case, has jurisdiction. Passing legislation that has clear lines of demarcation, including responsibilities.”
Despite the opposition, Blackburn is hopeful her legislation will move forward and receive a legislative hearing or a subcommittee markup.
The Tennessee Republican has some powerful outside players backing her.
Technology giants AT&T and Oracle both said they support the legislation, though they’re facing off against the Internet Association, a trade group representing major Internet companies such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon, which oppose the plan.
Senators also are talking about addressing Internet privacy.
“My door is always open,” Blackburn said. “I welcome [Democrats] to come talk with me. It’s an issue we’ve had on the table for several years. We need to resolve it and provide certainty for the entire ecosystem, the companies and constituents who are online consumers.”