Republicans break promise to protect Minnesota's Internet privacy

Earlier this year, Minnesota legislators voted overwhelmingly to protect our Internet privacy. But the wishes of lobbyists would end up carrying the day.

Earlier this year, Minnesota legislators voted overwhelmingly to protect our Internet privacy. But the wishes of lobbyists would end up carrying the day.

Internet and phone companies won a major victory in March when congressional Republicans voted to quash Obama-era rules requiring they get permission before selling everybody’s private Internet browsing data to advertisers.

In the early hours of Monday morning, they won again in Minnesota by defeating an enormously popular provision introduced a month ago to ban the practice here.

Immediately after Congress decided to soften the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) regulations, state Sen. Ron Latz (DFL-St. Louis Park) and Rep. Paul Thissen (SFL-Minneapolis) introduced bills to preemptively protect Minnesotans’ Internet privacy. Those bills received overwhelming bipartisan support, passing 66-1 in the Senate and 134-0 in the House, with Sen. David Osmek (R-Mound) as the single holdout of the entire legislature.

For a time, it seemed as though Republican and Democratic legislators could agree that nobody wanted Internet service providers or marketers peeking into their web activity. Minnesota was going to take the lead in this fight.

But at the beginning of May, Rep. Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington), chair of the jobs and energy committee and a network engineer by trade, suddenly scrapped the bill in a closed-door conference committee. He told City Pages then that he’d only done that because an unrelated provision in the jobs and energy bill needed some editing, and he intended to blend the Internet privacy bill with that one.

“Will be added to conference report before we take final vote,” Garofalo promised in a text, calling Democrats’ fist-shaking at the time “fake news.”

But the fake part seemed to be coming from Garofalo. On Monday morning members of the House sent Gov. Mark Dayton a jobs and energy bill that doesn’t include Internet privacy after all.

Rep. Tim Mahoney says he’s certain that lobbyists are responsible for this episode in arrested democracy. “The bill they sent to the governor early this morning was a backroom deal cut with lobbyists from Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and all those telecom companies so they can sell the internet data of Minnesotans to the highest bidder.”

Garofalo did not respond for comment.

Thissen agreed that lobbyists seemed to have an outsized influence on this bill.

“Since we introduced the amendment, I’ve had meetings with the Internet service providers and others. They repeatedly expressed their deep and strong opposition to the language,” he says. “As far as I know there’s nobody else that’s opposed to it. Every constituent I know wants to have the choice of making a decision over whether their personal information’s going to be shared or not.”

Thissen recalled that in several meetings with lobbyists over the past month, they tended to first deny ever sharing anybody’s data, then argued that having state-by-state, piecemeal regulations would be too difficult for their companies to abide by.

“They know that once one state passes one of these things, it’s going to show up in other states,” Thissen says. “But the second thing is they say they’re not doing this, but they don’t want the imposition placed on them either.”