The U.S. Senate on Thursday voted narrowly to repeal regulations requiring internet service providers to do more to protect customers' privacy than websites like Alphabet Inc's Google (GOOGL.O) or Facebook Inc (FB.O).
The vote was along party lines, with 50 Republicans approving the measure and 48 Democrats rejecting it. The two remaining Republicans in the Senate were absent and did not cast a vote.
According to the rules approved by the Federal Communications Commission in October under then-President Barack Obama, internet providers would need to obtain consumer consent before using precise geolocation, financial information, health information, children's information and web browsing history for advertising and internal marketing.
The vote was a victory for internet providers such as AT&T Inc (T.N), Comcast Corp (CMCSA.O) and Verizon Communications Inc (VZ.N), which had strongly opposed the rules.
The bill next goes to the U.S. House of Representatives, but it was not clear when they would take up the measure.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the Senate was overturning a regulation that "makes the internet an uneven playing field, increases complexity, discourages competition, innovation, and infrastructure investment."
But Democratic Senator Ed Markey said, "Republicans have just made it easier for American’s sensitive information about their health, finances and families to be used, shared, and sold to the highest bidder without their permission."
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said consumers would have privacy protections even without the Obama administration internet provider rules.
In a joint statement, Democratic members of the FCC and the Federal Trade Commission said the Senate vote "creates a massive gap in consumer protection law as broadband and cable companies now have no discernible privacy requirements."
Republican commissioners, including Pai, said in October that the rules would unfairly give websites like Facebook, Twitter Inc (TWTR.N) or Google the ability to harvest more data than internet service providers and thus dominate digital advertising. The FCC earlier this month delayed the data rules from taking effect.
The Internet and Television Association, a trade group, in a statement praised the vote as a "critical step towards re-establishing a balanced framework that is grounded in the long-standing and successful FTC privacy framework that applies equally to all parties operating online."
Websites are governed by a less restrictive set of privacy rules overseen by the Federal Trade Commission.
Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy counsel for advocacy group Consumers Union, said the vote "is a huge step in the wrong direction, and it completely ignores the needs and concerns of consumers."
(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Chris Reese and Jonathan Oatis)
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