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New Maine Law Aims To Restore Internet Privacy Protection Rolled Back By Trump Administration


The Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission are investigating big tech companies in part to learn what they do with users' data. California is already trying to protect user privacy. And in Maine, there's a new law that aims to restore the protections that were rolled back by the Trump administration and Congress. Steve Mistler from Maine Public Radio reports.

STEVE MISTLER, BYLINE: Your Internet service provider, whether it's a broadband provider at home or the telecoms that connect your phone to the Web, can see almost all of the unencrypted information that you share while using the Internet. Gigi Sohn is a fellow at Georgetown Law.

GIGI SOHN: And sees every email that crosses its pipes. It sees everything.

MISTLER: Everything. Your browsing history, which apps you use, the location of your mobile device. Sohn is also a former attorney for the Obama-era Federal Communications Commission that drafted the 2016 privacy rule that would have barred Internet service providers, commonly called ISPs, from selling all that personal data without your consent. But that data are valuable to the ISPs, which can sell it to companies for highly targeted advertising.

SOHN: So it's not exactly a secret here about who doesn't like these broadband privacy rules.

MISTLER: Two years ago, the industry convinced the Republican-controlled Congress and President Donald Trump to overturn the privacy rules. And that's how Sohn this spring ended up testifying before the Maine legislature in an attempt to secure privacy regulations for ISPs operating in the state.


SOHN: When the federal government stands down, the state government should stand up.

MISTLER: Democratic State Senator Shenna Bellows tried that two years ago, but the bill failed. With a new legislature, she tried again this year.

SHENNA BELLOWS: Everything you do online goes through your Internet service provider. And that's why it's so important. They should not be profiting off your personal information.

MISTLER: Large ISPs and attorneys from trade groups, like the Internet and Television Association, argued that the bill unfairly targeted ISPs while excluding so-called edge providers, like Google and Facebook.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (As narrator) Yet some Maine politicians want to exempt Facebook, Google and thousands of other Internet companies from new privacy legislation.

MISTLER: The Maine State Chamber of Commerce spent thousands of dollars on digital ads like that one, buying space on websites like Facebook. Senator Bellows, the bill's sponsor, says there's a big difference between regulating ISPs and edge providers, mainly that you can't get to sites like Google and Facebook without ISPs, the on-ramp to the Internet.

BELLOWS: Additionally, Facebook and Google are free services that you pay for with your privacy. Your Internet service provider charges you a lot of money for that access to the Internet.

MISTLER: The bill passed overwhelmingly in the Maine legislature before Democratic Governor Janet Mills signed into law what privacy advocates say is the toughest in all 50 states. Consumers don't have to ask ISPs not to sell their data. The burden is on the ISPs to ask customers for permission, going a step further than a new law in California. Charter Communications, one of the largest ISPs in the country, declined a request for an interview and issued a statement saying the Maine proposal is deeply flawed because it could lead to a patchwork of state regulations. But Gigi Sohn, who watched as ISPs spent millions of dollars overturning the federal privacy rule, is unsympathetic and hopes other states follow Maine's lead.

SOHN: And don't push Humpty Dumpty off the wall and then complain when he breaks into 50 pieces.

MISTLER: And, barring a lawsuit by the ISPs, at least one part of Humpty Dumpty will go back up on the wall on July 1 of next year, when the Maine law takes effect. For NPR News, I'm Steve Mistler in Portland, Maine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Journalist Steve Mistler is MPBN's chief political correspondent and statehouse bureau chief, specializing in the coverage of politics and state government.
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