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FCC Chairman Pai rushes to block new privacy rules

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Senate Judiciary Committee Hears Testimony From FCC Leaders On Proposed FCC Privacy Rules Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

New FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is gearing up for a full-scale assault on former chairman Tom Wheeler’s privacy rules. Passed in October, the privacy rules require internet service providers to get explicit permission before sharing users’ browsing history, location, and other sensitive data. Pai voted against the privacy rules at the time, and today, he announced a new plan that could see the rules frozen in as little as a week’s time.

Pai’s moves have to do with a petition filed last month by cable industry groups seeking to stay the rules until certain legal objections could be tried in court. The commission hasn’t voted on the petition yet, but with Pai as chairman and Republicans holding the majority, it’s likely to pass.

The larger surprise is how quickly the process might happen. The bulk of the privacy rules are already in effect, but the data security provisions won’t have legal force until March 2nd. That deadline has given Chairman Pai a reason to act faster than expected, requesting that commissioners assemble for an emergency vote on the larger petition before the rules take effect on Thursday. If the commission stuck to its announced schedule, it wouldn’t meet again until March 23rd.

If the commissioners are willing to hold the emergency vote, the result could be a sudden freeze to the rules and a major win for cable companies. If the commissioners don’t assemble, Pai has pledged to unilaterally stay the data security portion of the rules, leaving the rest of the order in place.

Republicans in Congress are already working to repeal the rules more permanently, but they’re facing a tight timeline. Senate Republicans are planning legislation that would repeal the rules under the Congressional Review Act — but the legislation must be passed within 60 days of the regulations taking effect. If the rules aren’t stayed, that will leave only a few remaining weeks to get the bill through.

It’s part of a larger plan to roll back the FCC’s oversight of network providers, ceding ground to the looser FTC oversight that currently enforces fair practices in most consumer goods.

“Chairman Pai believes that the best way to protect the online privacy of American consumers is through a comprehensive and uniform regulatory framework,” an FCC spokesperson said in a statement. “Therefore, he has advocated returning to a technology-neutral privacy framework for the online world.”