How Congress dismantled federal Internet privacy rules

Congressional Republicans knew their plan was potentially explosive. They wanted to kill landmark privacy regulations that would soon ban Internet providers, such as Comcast and AT&T, from storing and selling customers’ browsing histories without their express consent.

So after weeks of closed-door debates on Capitol Hill over who would take up the issue first — the House or the Senate — Republican members settled on a secret strategy, according to Hill staff and lobbyists involved in the battle. While the nation was distracted by the House’s pending vote to repeal Obamacare, Senate Republicans would schedule a vote to wipe out the new privacy protections.

On March 23, the measure passed on a straight party-line vote, 50 to 48. Five days later, a majority of House Republicans voted in favor of it, sending it to the White House, where President Trump signed the bill in early April without ceremony or public comment.

“While everyone was focused on the latest headline crisis coming out of the White House, Congress was able to roll back privacy,” said former Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler, who worked for nearly two years to pass the rules.

The process to eliminate them took only a matter of weeks. The blowback was immediate.

Constituents heckled several of the lawmakers at town halls. “You sold my privacy up the river!” one person yelled at Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) — lead sponsor of the Senate bill — at a gathering in April. Several late-night comedians roasted congressional Republicans: “This is what’s wrong with Washington, D.C. I guarantee you there is not one person, not one voter of any political stripe anywhere in America who asked for this,” Stephen Colbert said.

The quick undoing of the Internet privacy rules has prompted lawmakers in more than a dozen states to propose local laws to restore privacy protections to their constituents.

The FCC privacy rules were among the first of more than a hundred regulations and laws being targeted for elimination or massive overhaul by Trump and Republican members of Congress who want to dismantle Obama-era regulations they view as burdensome.

How the privacy rules came to be undone helps to explain and inform the strategies behind the broader range of Republican initiatives in the works. The rollback of privacy, for example, was the first step by the Republican-led FCC to overhaul Obama-era net neutrality rules .

The rolling crises within Trump’s administration and Republican infighting has slowed Republican lawmakers’ work on Capitol Hill. But they remain positioned to capi­tal­ize on their control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, a power structure that has not existed in more than a decade.

“Trump and the Republicans are doing so many different things on parallel tracks, the news media and activists can’t follow it all,” said Trump adviser and former House speaker Newt Gingrich. “This is by design.”

Paraguay congress set on fire amid presidential controversy

Demonstrators in Paraguay have set fire to the country’s Congress amid violent protests against a bill that would let the president seek re-election.

The head of the main opposition party said an activist had been shot dead.

The country’s 1992 constitution, introduced after 35 years of dictatorship, limits the president to a single five-year term.

But sitting President Horacio Cartes is trying to remove the restriction and run for re-election.

Protesters were photographed smashing in windows of the congress building in Asuncion on Friday night and setting fire to the interior.

The AFP news agency said protesters “ransacked” the offices of those who backed the bill.

Image copyrightEPA
Image captionProtesters set tyres on fire
Police on horseback are seen during a demonstration against a possible change in law to allow for presidential re-election in front of the Congress building in Asuncion, Paraguay, March 31, 2017.Image copyrightREUTERS
Image captionMounted units charged through the streets during clashes

Police used mounted units, rubber bullets, and water cannons to disperse the crowd. Local media reports said dozens of people had been injured, including protesters, politicians, and police officers.

The head of Paraguay’s opposition Liberal party, Efrain Alegre, said a young man had been killed during the protests. Police are yet to confirm this.

Santi Carneri, a journalist in Asuncion, told the BBC the Congress building was on fire for “more than one or two hours”.

There were “a lot of battles between people and the police in the streets”, he said, adding that it was the worst violence of its kind since Paraguay became a democracy in 1992.

‘A coup’

In a statement released on Twitter, President Cartes appealed for calm.

“Democracy is not conquered or defended with violence and you can be sure this government will continue to put its best effort into maintaining order in the republic,” he said (in Spanish).

The attorney general’s office said it had followed the events closely and was investigating the violence.

Protesters shout slogans prior to storming the National Congress in Asuncion, Paraguay, 31 March 2017.Image copyrightEPA
Image captionProtesters chanted slogans outside the building

Earlier, the crowd took to the streets following a private meeting of 25 senators – a slight majority of the house – which approved a bill to amend the constitution.

The bill must also be approved by the other house of parliament – the chamber of deputies – where President Cartes’ party holds a majority.

The chamber’s president, Hugo Velázquez, told ABC Color (in Spanish) that the sitting planned for the following morning would no longer take place and no decision would be made on Saturday.

Opponents say the bill will weaken the country’s democratic institutions.

Opposition senator Desiree Masi said: “A coup has been carried out. We will resist and we invite the people to resist with us.”

Policeman aims a weapon during a demonstration against a possible change in the law to allow for presidential re-election in front of the Congress building in Asuncion, Paraguay, March 31, 2017Image copyrightREUTERS
Image captionPolice used rubber bullets and water cannons, injuring some protesters

Paraguay was controlled by military ruler General Alfredo Stroessner, who seized power in a coup, from 1954 until 1989.

The new constitution in 1992 created the modern government, but there has been a long period of political instability and party infighting, as well as a failed coup attempt.

President Cartes’ term is due to end in 2018.

The change, if approved, would also allow former president Fernando Lugo to run again.

Mr Lugo was ousted in 2012 over his handling of a land eviction in which 17 people were killed.

His supporters, however, would like to see him run again.

 

US Congress Inks Pact on Permanent Internet Access Tax Ban

House and Senate negotiators announced Wednesday that they have reached agreement on bipartisan legislation to make permanent a moratorium that prevents states from taxing access to the Internet.

The moratorium was first enacted in 1998. State and local governments that already had Internet taxes were allowed to keep them under the current moratorium, but under the new agreement, jurisdictions with Internet taxes would be required to phase them out by mid-2020.

Jurisdictions in seven states – Hawaii, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas and Wisconsin – tax access to the Internet, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. Together they would lose “several hundred million dollars annually” if they were no longer allowed to collect the taxes.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said the measure means that small businesses and individuals will “finally be free from the threat of hundreds of dollars in new taxes each year, just to access the Internet.”

The Internet tax moratorium was attached to a separate measure modernizing the US customs system.

That measure attracted controversy earlier this year when the Senate voted to give the government more power to retaliate against countries, like China, that manipulate the value of their currency to make their exports more attractive. The Obama administration opposed the currency provision even though it was authored by a key ally, New York Democrat Charles Schumer.

More broadly, the customs measure is aimed at beefing up enforcement against trade cheats and facilitating the free flow of legitimate trade.

“This bill will make it easier for Americans to compete and win in marketplaces around the world,” said Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, R-Texas. “Strong enforcement provisions will also level the playing field and help ensure that other countries follow the same rules.”