AUGUSTA — A legislative committee deadlocked along party lines Thursday on a bill aimed at protecting privacy on the internet.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, would prohibit internet service providers who receive state subsidies from selling customers’ data without notice or consent.
The measure would also prohibit ISPs from charging customers an opt-out fee to protect their data and would direct the Maine attorney general to review whether the state’s unfair trade practices law could be used to address the issue of net neutrality, which allows ISPs to favor some internet sites and applications over others based on how much they pay.
Five Democrats voted in favor of the bill and five Republicans opposed it, but the deadlock will be broken once three members who were absent Thursday cast their votes Friday. The bill, L.D. 1610, will face additional votes in the House and Senate.
Bellows said the issue of internet privacy was especially relevant in light of recent revelations that user data from the social media giant Facebook was harvested without permission or knowledge by the company, Cambridge Analytica, which worked on President Trump’s 2016 election campaign.
“ISPs have access to everything you view or communicate on the internet,” Bellows said. “Whether it’s private emails or the web sites you are doing research on for a private medical condition, when the feds allowed the ISPs to harvest, sell or share this data, just like Facebook currently does, that opened up a whole new dangerous world that invades personally privacy.”
Bellows said companies that are taking taxpayer money in Maine would not be allowed to sell or share data from Maine customers.
Oami Amarasingham, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said her organization supports the bill, which is co-sponsored by state Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham.
“Recent news stories about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have shown us just how sensitive this kind of data is,” Amarasingham said. “Without an ISP privacy law, ISPs will be able to do the same thing that Facebook did and instead of allowing ISPs to get into this dangerous game Maine should take steps to protect the privacy of Mainers.”
Republicans said they opposed the measure largely because it sidesteps the legislative process, and because internet privacy issues fall outside the state’s jurisdiction and should be regulated by the federal government.
“For me it’s a pre-emption issue really,” said Rep. Nathan Wadsworth, R-Hiram. “Congress needs to take action on this.”
In December 2017, the Federal Communications Commission voted to reverse rules put in place by former President Barack Obama that prevented ISPs from slowing service for some sites while speeding it up for others based on payment. The FCC also passed rules in 2017 prohibiting states from making their own rules and states that have done so have found themselves embroiled in lawsuits.
But Democrats, including Berry, said the bill is narrowly focused and addresses only companies that are getting taxpayer funds in Maine.
“Maine shouldn’t be doing business with companies who misuse our personal information or who reserve the right to choke off free and open access to the internet,” Berry said.