In a legislative career where he honed bills to keep private online data in the hands of its individual owners, but Rep. Issa's recent vote short-circuited with digital privacy advocates.
(TNS) -- The founder of a successful electronics company and a proud gadgets geek, Rep. Darrell Issa built a reputation as not only one of the few Republicans with a keen interest in protecting online privacy, but a go-to member of Congress when it came to the topic.
Through legislation and the soapbox, and by using his office and off-the-beaten-path forums to discuss internet regulations at a granular level with some of the most interested people, he laid out a vision for an internet where people can freely share their ideas, have equal access to information, and where their personal information is kept private.
But Issa and other Republicans are under fire from pro-digital privacy organizations after they voted for a bill that lets internet service providers continue to sell or give away information on the web sites that their customers visit – though ISPs don’t typically have access to information about what their customers do on these websites – such as purchases they make. Some of those groups had long lauded Issa for his stands.
Supporters of the bill say some businesses like Facebook and Google already are allowed to share such browser history and that would continue, adding that this measure would level the playing field for internet service providers.
In a legislative career where he honed bills to keep private online data in the hands of its individual owners, this one Issa vote, in a sense, short-circuited with digital privacy advocates.
"We're disappointed that Rep. Issa voted to weaken privacy protections,” said Ernesto Falcon, legislative counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights organization. “The party line vote in Congress was a case of lawmakers putting the interests of cable and phone companies ahead of the privacy interests of Americans,”
The group previously commended the Vista Republican for pressing for answers about the prosecution of a cyber activist who committed suicide, his efforts to determine the impact international trade deals would have on intellectual property rights, and especially his opposition to legislation that would weaken online privacy at the expense of free speech.
The legislation Issa and others supported rescinds Obama-era Federal Communications Commission regulations that had not yet taken effect. The rules would have prohibited internet providers from selling personal browser information without the customer’s permission, requiring customers to “opt-in” before their data could be shared.
Calvin Moore, Issa’s spokesman, said the bill’s consequences for privacy were misunderstood by opponents.
“And so aside from this having less than zero actual impact on your privacy, it was rolling back a rule that unfairly favored some companies over others and amounted to a huge power grab by the FCC to regulate companies they didn’t even have jurisdiction over until (former commission Chairman) Tom Wheeler unilaterally decided to call the internet a utility and seize that authority for himself,” he said in an email.
Craig Aaron, president and CEO of Free Press Action Fund, a pro-internet privacy organization, had a different view.
“Apparently they see no problem with cable and phone companies snooping on your private medical and financial information, your religious activities or your sex life,” he said.
His group maintains the Declaration of Internet Freedom that Issa has signed.
The bill cleared the House 215-205 on March 28 on a near party line vote, and passed the Senate 50-48 the week before. President Donald Trump signed the bill into law on Monday.
Cable and telecommunications companies supported the measure and argued that the FCC regulations put them at competitive disadvantage to companies that are regulated by more permissive Federal Trade Commission policies. Those policies allowed companies like Facebook and Google to share information.
“Today’s Congressional action to repeal the FCC’s misguided rules marks an important step toward restoring consumer privacy protections that apply consistently to all internet companies,” said the trade group NCTA-The Internet & Television Association, after the legislation passed the Senate. The industry organization represents internet service providers, including Cox Communications, Inc.
The telecommunications industry gave Issa’s 2016 campaign $144,800, and $542,343 through the nine-term congressman’s career, according to an analysis by OpenSecrets, an organization that tracks political contributions. Issa is the chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet, a body that has some impact on the telecom industry, but the Communications and Technology Subcommittee in the House Energy and Commerce Committee plays a much larger role.
Issa received more from the industry in the 2016 cycle than all but 13 other representatives, including two who are from California.
The telcomm contributions are a small sliver in comparison to what Issa has received from constituents and from from individual donors who believe in his work in Congress, including many who back him for his support of digital privacy issues, spokesman Moore said.
While telecommunications companies contended the bill would create consistent regulations across different parts of the industry, privacy advocates and consumer rights groups worried that people who go online, either through a computer or smart phone or tablet, could lost control of their private data.
“It is extremely disappointing that Congress is sacrificing the privacy rights of Americans in the interest of protecting the profits of major internet companies including Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon,” Neema Singh Guliani, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement. The ACLU has supported internet and online privacy policies Issa championed.
Issa’s vote isn’t a retreat from his past efforts to keep people’s digital information private, Moore, said. The bill he supported doesn’t have the type of impact opponents portrayed, and rolls back government overreach and creates a consistent regulations across internet-related industries.
“The Congressman become known as one of the fiercest and most outspoken defenders of individual privacy and that’s something that’s never changing,” Moore said.
Over the last five years Issa built a name for himself by trying to empower people to keep their online information private, and for net neutrality, a concept where internet service providers provide access to all online content, regardless of the origin, and without favoring one type source over the other.
Issa penned op-ed columns where he urged his lawmaker colleagues to keep people’s online personal information private, and was the first member of Congress to sign the Declaration of Internet Freedom, where he affirmed he would “Protect privacy and defend everyone’s ability to control how their data and devices are used.”
He received widespread praise for writing the first draft of the Digital Citizen’s Bill of Rights, a document that, among other provisions, says people “have a right to privacy on the internet.”
Four years ago, when Reddit was a much more obscure forum, Issa used it to introduce the Internet American Moratorium Act, or IAMA (a reference to a hodgepodge of other acronyms “I Am A” and “Ask Me Anything”).
He also put some of his internet-related legislation online in a way to crowdsource possible amendments from people who were willing to dive into the nuances of public policy.
And last year he campaigned for re-election on his work keeping personal information out of the hands of hackers. “I am proud to serve on the bipartisan Encryption Working Group where my colleagues and I are busy crafting policies to help U.S. companies … can make secure technologies protect our privacy in a digital age,” Issa’s campaign website says.
Concerns about the bill were overblown or misunderstood, Moore said. It didn’t change what internet service could already do with private information.
“There’s no one in Congress who has been as staunch of an advocate for digital privacy as Congressman Issa,” Moore said.
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