AUGUSTA — A politically diverse group of state lawmakers said Tuesday they will pass a state law to prevent internet service providers from selling or sharing Maine customers’ online information such as their browsing histories or health or financial data.

Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, said her bill is the result of dozens of lawmakers wanting legislation in response to a move by Congress in March opening the door to the sharing of personal Web data. The action by Congress put the brakes on a pending Federal Communications Commission rule requiring companies that provide internet service to obtain consent from customers before sharing any data about which websites the customers frequent or what they look for as they search the internet for information.

While a number of Maine-based ISPs support L.D. 1610 and say they will respect customers’ privacy, other groups, including the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, are voicing opposition to it.

Maine Chamber President Dana Connors said Maine’s ISPs already had a track record of protecting privacy and called the bill “a solution looking for a problem.”

“Additionally, broadband is a major contributor to Maine’s economic growth; therefore we urge Maine legislators to oppose this regulatory overreach, so Maine’s broadband providers can continue to invest in Maine and enhance the critical services they provide to Maine residents and businesses,” he said.

But Fletcher Kittredge, founder and CEO of Biddeford Internet Corp., which does business as GWI, said failing to pass a state law protecting online privacy could ultimately undermine consumers’ trust, driving them away from the internet. Kittredge also said Tuesday he believed Congress acted too quickly when it passed a law rolling back the FCC rules, which were put in place last October, before they had a chance to go into effect.

He said while some consumers in Maine may have the ability to choose an ISP that protects their private data, others in more rural parts of the state have only one ISP available to them and do not have a choice.

“You have to have internet access. I think it’s a utility, frankly,” Kittredge said. “So you have to have access. There is only one choice, (and) not only are they going to charge you a fee, they are going to turn around and sell your data, and that just is all wrong.”

Kittredge said most people don’t even realize the amount of information an ISP can collect on an individual’s internet usage. By not making the rules uniform statewide, it will put ISPs that protect privacy at a competitive disadvantage to those that are willing to sell or trade their customers’ data.

He said the change at the federal level came quickly and with little debate.

“At the national level, they rammed through this legislation without a lot of public discussion and I don’t think the senators and the congressmen even really understood the implications of what they were doing,” Kittredge said. “So now we are ending up with a bunch of state-level rules and I think that’s what the big national providers would have liked least of all.”

Legislative leaders agreed to allow the bill to come forward despite missing the usual deadline for bills, and proponents appear to have broad support from both Republicans and Democrats, as well as independents.

Bellows’ bill replicates the FCC privacy protections that were frozen by Congress earlier this year. The bill requires internet providers to obtain permission from subscribers before sharing or selling data on their users’ browsing, internet use, geo-location history and other information. Currently, broadband providers can collect all of that information unless a user tells them not to collect it.

The adoption of the rules last October by the FCC was bitterly opposed by major internet providers like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon Communications, which argued they would result in higher costs for consumers because they would reduce the opportunity to profit from the sale of precision-targeted advertising.

Rep. Stacey Guerin, R-Glenburn, said many people are surprised when an ad for something they may have recently been looking at online pops up in their Facebook feed or on another Web page they are looking at. Guerin said it happened to her recently when she was researching hotels for her son’s wedding.

“The next time I went to Facebook, I was bombarded with hotel advertisements for hotels in the area I was searching for earlier that day,” Guerin said.

Bellows said the federal law change didn’t pre-empt states from setting their own laws regulating internet service providers within their borders. She said her bill was narrowly worded so that it would apply only to Maine residents and companies providing access to the internet in Maine.

Bellows said the bill requires customers to provide affirmative permission to an ISP before it could transfer any of their data to a third party.

The bill also prohibits an ISP from charging a customer more or denying service if the customer doesn’t permit the ISP to share the customer’s data.

“If you care about your data, this should be an easy bill to support,” Bellows said.

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

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