Comcast, AT&T Sue Maine Over Privacy Law, Claim It Violates Free Speech

from the ALL-the-rights-for-me,-none-of-the-rights-for-you dept

Back in 2017, the telecom industry successfully lobbied Congress to kill some modest FCC privacy rules before they could even take effect. The rules simply required that ISPs be more transparent about what data they collect and who they sell it to, requiring that consumers opt in to the sale of more sensitive location data (financial, location). From there, the telecom lobby proceeded to convince the FCC to effectively neuter its consumer protection authority almost entirely. Not only that, it successfully lobbied the FCC to try and ban states from stepping in and protecting consumers -- though the courts (so far) didn't look too kindly upon that.

In short the telecom sector lobbied to kill federal oversight, resulting in a lot of states now rushing in to try and fill the void. It then proceeded to cry like a toddler about a "discordant and fractured framework of state protections," hoping you'd ignore this was a problem the sector created.

Case in point: the telecom sector has now stepped in to sue Maine for attempting to pass a new privacy law that closely mirrors the FCC's discarded 2017 rules. According to a coalition of telecom lobbying organizations, Maine's law violates AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and Spectrum's First Amendment rights:

"Maine cannot discriminate against a subset of companies that collect and use consumer data by attempting to regulate just that subset and not others, especially given the absence of any legislative findings or other evidentiary support that would justify targeting ISPs alone. Maine's decision to impose unique burdens on ISPs' speech—while ignoring the online and offline businesses that have and use the very same information and for the same and similar purposes as ISPs—represents discrimination between similarly situated speakers that is impermissible under the First Amendment."

Maine's law was signed by Governor Janet Mills last June, and is scheduled to take effect on July 1, 2020. The law not only requires that consumers opt in before sensitive data is collected and sold, but it also attempted to ban ISPs from charging broadband subscribers even more money to opt out of snoopvertising, something AT&T engaged in for years. Again, Maine's law, like the laws popping up in other states, wouldn't exist if the telecom sector hadn't lobbied to effectively obliterate modest federal FCC rules. And again, this is a problem the sector created by trying to have its cake and eat it too.

One of the key arguments underpinning most of the telecom sector's lobbying shenanigans of late involves one central claim: that state or federal efforts to hold giant ISPs accountable somehow violates Comcast and other ISPs' First Amendment rights. You'll recall ISPs tried to claim that net neutrality also somehow violated ISPs' free speech rights, despite the fact that as simple conduits they don't engage in "editorial" decisions, making the argument rather silly. Effectively, the industry has spent a decade trying to claim that any federal or state consumer protections violate ISPs' free speech rights and therefore shouldn't exist.

All the while, the industry falsely claims it really wants meaningful privacy guidelines. In reality, what the industry wants is either no privacy guidelines at all (pretty much what we've "enjoyed" for 20 some odd years now), or weak federal guidelines their lawyers get to write -- so flimsy and loophole filled that they don't do much of anything. Well, anything except pre-empting other better state or federal privacy laws written with something vaguely resembling a consensus.

While everybody fixates on "big tech," "big telecom" is effectively gutting all meaningful oversight of a quickly consolidating sector that was already an anti-consumer, anti-innovation, and anticompetitive mess. Gosh, wonder how that's going to turn out?

Filed Under: 1st amendment, fcc, free speech, maine, privacy, privacy laws
Companies: at&t, comcast, spectrum, verizon


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 Feb 2020 @ 7:14am

    If they're claiming that regulating their use of consumer (read: other people's) data is a violation of their freedom of speech... does that mean they're claiming to be a publisher, and are thus liable for the speech of their customers? Because that's the only way that this position is consistent, and I don't think they actually want that!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 19 Feb 2020 @ 7:31am

      Re:

      So no section 230 for the ISPs...
      I see what you did there ;)

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Stephen T. Stone (profile), 19 Feb 2020 @ 8:01am

        Internet access providers don't necessarily need 230. They're supposed to be dumb pipes, not providers of platforms for speech.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Bruce C., 19 Feb 2020 @ 9:36am

          Tell that to ...

          Universal Studios... a Comcast company
          NBC ... a Comcast company.
          Time-Warner media (or whatever they call it now)... an AT&T company.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 19 Feb 2020 @ 10:04am

            Re: Tell that to ...

            Different rules apply to different products, services and divisions of diversified companies. If they do not run their ISP and phones services as dumb pipes, they are interfering with other peoples freedom of speech.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Stephen T. Stone (profile), 19 Feb 2020 @ 11:02am

            Universal Studios, NBC, and Time-Warner Media are not Internet access providers. Your argument makes no sense. Do better than this.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 19 Feb 2020 @ 10:46am

      Re:

      Indeed, I'm willing to make that trade, but I'm pretty sure they wouldn't be happy with it.

      'Okay, fine, from now on the content passing through your networks will be treated as your speech, and therefore laws attempting to restrict how you can handle it are a no-go.

      That said, as it is your speech you are now responsible for it, all of it, and lemme tell you you are not going to be happy with what you have been saying lately and which you are now liable for, so if I were you I'd be calling up a lot of lawyers, because you are going to need them.'

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 20 Feb 2020 @ 9:09am

        Re: Re:

        That said, as it is your speech you are now responsible for it, all of it, and lemme tell you you are not going to be happy with what you have been saying lately and which you are now liable for, so if I were you I'd be calling up a lot of lawyers, because you are going to need them.'

        Let alone the piracy you've been committing.... I'd start getting the semi's filled with cash now.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 Feb 2020 @ 7:28am

    They are right about being discriminated against

    The obvious solution is to apply the same rules to other businesses.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Toom1275 (profile), 19 Feb 2020 @ 9:03am

    impose unique burdens on ISPs' speech—while ignoring the online and offline businesses that have and use the very same information and for the same and similar purposes as ISPs

    What a coincidence, this is very similar to a lie Dick was pushing less than a week ago.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Bobvious, 19 Feb 2020 @ 1:51pm

      Re: Dear Comcast and AT&T

      Your gormless temerity has moved me. Please name these other businesses (with specificity) so that I can level the playing field by adding them to the list.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Toom1275 (profile), 19 Feb 2020 @ 4:09pm

        Re: Re: Dear Comcast and AT&T

        Did you intend to put that somewhere else?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Bobvious, 20 Feb 2020 @ 2:44am

          Re: Re: Re: Dear Comcast and AT&T

          Did you intend to put that somewhere else?

          Probably should have included the /sarc tag, but the basic premise is that these gormless companies hand waved at mentioning the specifics of " the online and offline businesses that have and use the very same information and for the same and similar purposes as ISPs"

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 Feb 2020 @ 2:20pm

    if At&t sells your data using it free speech.
    Does it know about all the times you said it hates humanity?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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