AUGUSTA — A bill aimed at protecting the privacy of internet users’ data faced high-profile opposition Wednesday when a former chairman of the Federal Trade Commission called the measure a solution in search of a problem.

Jon Leibowitz, chairman under President Barack Obama, told lawmakers on the Legislature’s Energy Utilities and Technology Committee that a bill to prohibit internet service providers from selling or sharing customers’ personal data, especially online browsing and search histories, is unnecessary because consumers are already protected under federal and state law from unfair or deceptive practices.

“This legislation, as well-intentioned as it is, … will create more confusion, it will not create clarity,” Leibowitz said. He said a recent decision by Congress to suspend Federal Communications Commission privacy rules approved in the waning days of the Obama administration has little impact on consumer privacy because the rules had yet to take effect.

Leibowitz, who now works for a coalition of some of the largest telecommunications and cable companies in the U.S., said the FTC and Maine’s attorney general already have the authority to protect consumer privacy, and the FCC can prosecute internet service providers if they inappropriately sell or swap a customer’s data.

In addition, internet service providers have no vested interest in compromising their customers’ privacy, he said.

Leibowitz said the FTC, which was controlled by Democrats at the time, criticized 27 points in the FCC privacy rules when the Obama administration announced them.

The biggest flaw with the rule and the bill now before the Maine Legislature is that it is not technology neutral, he said. They would regulate ISPs, but not search engines and other technology entities that collect consumer data.

“Privacy rules should based on the principle that privacy shouldn’t be about who collects the data but what data is collected and how that data is used,” Leibowitz said.

Also testifying against the bill Wednesday was Anne Kierig of the State Privacy and Security Coalition, a group of technology, media, communications and retail companies and six trade associations.

Several other states are considering similar legislation but none has been approved, she said. If rules vary from state to state, it would have a negative impact on commerce and could reduce the options available to rural internet consumers, she said.

“Because broadband service is critical to e-commerce, creating new and different standards in Maine risks disrupting a significant portion of the state’s innovation economy and may have major unintended consequences for consumers and businesses as ISPs are forced to adjust their investment and technology plans based on a singular set of rules for the state.”

The bill, L.D. 1610 is sponsored by a bipartisan group of lawmakers including Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester and Rep. Stacey Guerin, R-Glenburn. The bill is a response to the recent decision by Congress to suspend Obama’s internet privacy rules.

Supporters of the bill, including some Maine-based ISPs, say the bill is needed to ensure all ISPs play by the same rules, in part to protect customers in rural Maine who may have only one ISP option.

Bellows said the bill is really about consumer protection. Her bill would require ISPs to get customers’ consent before sharing or selling data, and allows for civil court action in the case of violations.

“It’s not a criminal penalty and its not under the (Public Utilities Commission),” Bellows said.

She and others testifying for the bill said Mainers can’t be expected to trust large ISPs or the federal government to protect them from privacy breaches.

“The way consumer protections have always worked is to create checks and balances,” Bellows said. “To create limits on the actions of private entities that might infringe on peoples’ personal privacy or their personal health that might have unintended consequences that we as policymakers see as not tenable. I think we shouldn’t be deferring to promises.”

But at least one lawmaker on the committee, Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, said he was concerned that the Legislature, which adjourns in June, might not have enough time to give the bill full consideration while crafting compromises that could resolve conflicts.

The bill faces at least one additional work session before the committee before it could move to the full Legislature for consideration.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

[email protected]

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