In this era of increased harassment and persecution of people on the basis of political viewpoints and…
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First Amendment Rights: Good News from the IRS on Donor Privacy

In this era of increased harassment and persecution of people on the basis of political viewpoints and First Amendment expression, there’s actually good news to report.

In fact, that positive development comes from none other than the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), which few people typically consider a font of good news.

Specifically, the IRS just announced a proposed rule to stop requiring nonprofit organizations to file what’s known as a Form 990 Schedule B, which exposes sensitive donor information not only to the federal government and potential rogues like former IRS official Lois Lerner, but also people who seek to access and use that information to target people on the basis of political belief.

As we at CFIF have long asserted, this welcome move will help protect the…[more]

September 12, 2019 • 11:07 am

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Congress Restores Regulatory Sanity to Online Privacy Law Print
By Timothy H. Lee
Thursday, April 06 2017
There wasn't any new onslaught of consumer privacy violations to justify that intrusion, and it took the FCC reclassifying internet service as a "public utility" under 1930s-vintage federal statutes enacted for copper-wire telephone service to wrestle authority from the FTC.

From time immemorial, Congress has drawn citizens' wrath by habitually taking the easy or popular route instead of the right or courageous path. 

So when Congress pursues the proper but politically riskier course, we should collectively take note and applaud it. 

Last week provided such an occasion when Congress utilized the Congressional Review Act (CRA), which was enacted in 1996 as part of the Contract with America, to overturn a defective "privacy" regulation imposed by the Obama Administration's Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on a narrow party-line vote last year. 

The predictable jeremiads from the political left and mainstream media came instantly.  To hear them tell it, Congress's vote opened the floodgates for internet service providers to gather and sell consumers' most private online details.  Former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, the hyperpartisan behind the attempted regulation, offered a commentary entitled "How the Republicans Sold Your Privacy to Internet Providers."  Very subtle. 

The truth, however, is entirely different. 

First, the Obama FCC's regulation hadn't even taken effect yet.  So Congress's vote simply maintains a decades-old status quo. 

The Obama FCC rule would've required consumers to affirmatively "opt in" before service providers could use their data to improve overall performance or tailor advertising to consumer preferences and needs.  In contrast, current law allows consumers to "opt out" of such data collection if they so choose, which few do because it would interfere with the more customized online service that many prefer. 

It must also be emphasized that consumers must already "opt in" to allow access to particularly sensitive data like Social Security numbers. 

Another defect with last year's FCC order is that it encroached on longstanding Federal Trade Commission (FTC) authority.  For decades, while internet use grew exponentially and transformed our lives, the FTC served as beat cop on these matters and punished entities for privacy and data security violations.  Under that system, the internet flourished while consumer privacy remained protected. 

Nevertheless, Obama's overactive FCC decided to impose a new "solution" where no problem existed.  There wasn't any new onslaught of consumer privacy violations to justify that intrusion, and it took the FCC reclassifying internet service as a "public utility" under 1930s-vintage federal statutes enacted for copper-wire telephone service to wrestle authority from the FTC. 

Another problem is that last year's FCC rule conspicuously didn't apply to powerful content companies like Google, which make their living by monetizing consumer data for advertising and sales purposes. 

That disparate treatment would be manifestly unfair, and an unacceptable bureaucratic intrusion into the marketplace to pick winners and losers.  Companies like Google that remained immune from the previous FCC's rule possess just as much sensitive customer information as service providers, if not more.  And while proponents of the Obama FCC's proposal claim that service providers deserve tighter restrictions because switching providers is more cumbersome than switching websites, The Wall Street Journal notes that the opposite is actually true: 

The reality is the reverse.  The average internet user connects through six devices, according to a paper last year from Georgia Tech, and moves across locations and networks.  But which search engine do you use, whether on your home laptop or iPhone at work?  Probably Google.  Plus:  Encryption and other technology will soon shield some 70% of the internet from service providers. 

It's natural that American consumers would remain concerned about online privacy.  But the simple fact is that the Obama FCC attempted a radical departure from decades of internet "light touch" regulation that allowed it to grow as it has to date.  As summarized by new FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and acting FTC Chairman Maureen Ohlhausen, who themselves deserve great credit for their leadership, the FTC remains the superior enforcement authority: 

The American people deserve a comprehensive framework that will protect their privacy throughout the internet.  And that's why we'll be working together to restore the FTC's authority to police ISPs' privacy practices.  We need to put the nation's most experienced and expert privacy cop back on the beat, and we need to end the uncertainty and confusion that was created in 2015 when the FCC intruded in this space. 

In short, the Obama Administration fractured our nation's online privacy law, and it is our job to fix it. 

Congress's vote reversing the Obama FCC's ill-conceived and discriminatory rule constitutes a critical step in that regard, and it deserves credit for doing the right thing. 

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