Your internet browsing history may soon be an open book that is up for sale to advertisers, and South Dakota's three members of Congress supported the move.
During the past two weeks, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution that would allow internet service providers to track and sell your online browsing information with much greater ease.
If signed by President Donald Trump, the bill would roll back a Federal Communications Commission decision that would have given consumers greater control over what their internet service provider can do with their data by requiring those companies to get permission from customers before using their information to create targeted advertisements. Those FCC rules had not yet gone into effect but were slated to take effect later this year.
Several members of Congress who voted for the bill — including the three members of the South Dakota delegation — received sizable campaign donations from the telecom industry.
The measure was sponsored by Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and started in the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation — a committee chaired by Sen. John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota. All three members of South Dakota's delegation voted in favor of the bill.
Without protections in place, consumer advocates fear that broadband providers will be able to do what they like with people's data.
"Advertisers and marketers are lining up to get access to all the information that's now available about us," said Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy, which advocates for tougher internet privacy measures.
However, cable companies, cellphone carriers and the advertising industry attacked the FCC rules as an overreach. Having to get permission from customers to use their browsing and app histories would likely make it more difficult to build stronger advertising revenues, as telecom companies want to do.
Internet companies such as Google and Facebook operate under less restrictive requirements and don't have to ask users for permission before tracking what sites they visit. Those companies are under the oversight of the Federal Trade Commission, not the Federal Communications Commission. Republicans and industry groups have decried that discrepancy, saying it was unfair and confusing for consumers, since oversight of broadband companies changed from the FTC to the FCC in 2015.
“As technology changes, we have to keep looking at how to best protect online consumer privacy under one consistently enforced standard. The FCC’s flawed proposal for new rules, which never went into effect, would have applied to some but not all companies handling consumer data on the internet," Thune said in an emailed statement. "These misguided rules were not an improvement over the federal government’s existing legal authority to enforce online privacy and would have led to unnecessary confusion and additional red tape.”
The Journal spoke with several Republican staffers from Thune's office and the commerce committee. They argued that by rolling back the regulations before they were enacted, consumers would get more online advertising that was of interest to them. The officials acknowledged that the broadband companies stood to make more money without this regulation but said the money may ultimately be used to improve infrastructure that could be a benefit to the customers.
A look at campaign finance reports from this election cycle may reveal another reason why some in Congress may have been eager to get the bill passed. The Journal used data compiled by the National Institute on Money in State Politics and found that members of Congress who voted for the bill received large sums of money from telecommunications companies.
Thune received the most money of any member of Congress from the telecommunications industry this election cycle — $215,000. Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., received $251,000 from the telecom industry during his last election in 2014.
An aide for Thune denied that campaign money influenced his vote and said the senator has always voted with South Dakota's interests in mind.
Democrats, who largely voted against the bill, also received large donations from the telecom industry but at a much smaller rate compared with Republicans. In 2016, Republicans made up seven of the top 10 congressional candidates who received money from the telecommunications industry.
Thune's donations included $10,000 contributions each from AT&T, Centurylink, Charter Communications, Comcast, Sprint and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. He received slightly smaller amounts from other big players including Qualcomm, Verizon, Windstream Communications and Level 3 Communications. His biggest donation from the telecom industry was $15,000, from Time Warner Cable.
U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds and U.S. Rep. Krisi Noem of South Dakota each received roughly $40,000 in campaign donations from the telecom industry.
A few states do regulate specific practices by broadband providers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks state laws. Minnesota, for instance, requires internet service providers to get customer permission before sharing their web-browsing histories. The Minnesota Legislature voted to strengthen that law Thursday in response to the federal bill.
Kristi Fiegen, chairperson of the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, said South Dakota doesn't have a law like Minnesota's that would protect consumer privacy from broadband providers. There is a similar law that protects consumer privacy from being sold by investor-owned utilities, such as Black Hills Energy, but that law doesn't apply to broadband providers.
She doesn't predict a state broadband law would be adopted in South Dakota because she believes the Federal Trade Commission would be able to handle any problems that arise.
"We will look to the federal government for one standard and consistent set of rules on this issue," Fiegen said. "We want the FTC to be the cops, and then if they don't do their job the state will step in."
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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