AUGUSTA – The Maine House and Senate are divided over a bill to prevent some internet service providers from selling users’ private data.

On Friday, the Democratic-controlled House voted 82-63 in support of a measure that would prohibit internet service providers, or ISPs, that receive state contracts or grants from “the use, sale or disclosure of or access to customer personal information” without a customer’s permission.

But the Republican-controlled Senate voted 19-16 on Thursday to kill the proposal, meaning the bill is likely dead for the year unless a handful of Republicans change their positions or a compromise is struck.

The divided votes came at time of heightened concern over data privacy online and days after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress on his company’s data-sharing policies.

Bill sponsor Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, said the bill was especially important given the Republican-controlled Congress’ decision to overturn Federal Communications Commission rules prohibiting ISPs from selling or sharing users’ private information gathered from emails and internet searches without consent. Bellows said she agreed to change the bill to restrict the prohibitions to only ISPs that receive state funds in order to address constitutional concerns.

“Imagine, for an example, you email a loved one about a sensitive medical matter or you research something deeply personal on the internet, and then the next day you get something in the mail related to that personal email that you thought was between you and one other person,” Bellows said during Senate floor debate on Thursday. “That is exactly what would happen in the absence of internet privacy protections because of a change in federal law.”

Bellows and other supporters pointed out that during committee hearings, Maine-based ISPs such as Axiom and GWI supported the bill while the large national providers opposed it. Under the revised proposal, ISPs that violate the data-sharing and data-selling prohibition could lose any state contracts or grants made through programs such as ConnectME.

But opponents said the bill is unnecessary because ISPs are not engaged in the practice and customers can effectively punish any companies that do in the future by declining to purchase their service. They also pointed out that the bill would not apply to Facebook, Google or any of the other tech and social media companies currently in the spotlight for sharing or selling users’ data and would, instead, only impose “onerous regulations” on ISPs.

Rep. Nathan Wadsworth, R-Hiram, predicted the bill could also lead to costly litigation for the state while discouraging ISPs from investing in expanding broadband in Maine.

“If implemented, LD 1610 would stifle innovation and allow government to pick winners and losers within the communications space while doing nothing to improve consumer privacy,” Wadsworth said.

The Maine State Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, distributed a letter to lawmakers warning that the law would set Maine apart from other states, creating confusion and potentially harming the state economy. The Chamber warned the bill could “impede the flow of information and advertising small businesses depend on to run a profitable business” and could affect tourism,

“Virtually every weekend hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to our state and their ability to find Maine restaurants, attractions and retailers will be negatively impacted,” reads the Chamber of Commerce letter to legislators. “They will be subjected to an online experience unlike anywhere else in the nation and the likely result will be less use of the internet which means less business opportunity for our tourism based businesses.”

But bill supporters scoffed at the Chamber’s suggestions that protecting consumers’ private data could somehow affect tourism in Maine, especially considering that ISPs say they are not currently sharing or selling user data.

“They are going to continue to do what they have always done and the sky will fall and there will be no tourism in Maine? I don’t see it,” said Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, chairman of the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee that reviewed the bill.

With the House and Senate in disagreement, the bill could now bounce between the chambers in the latter days of the legislative session. Absent an agreement, the bill would die between the chambers.


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