Maryland Republicans head off Democrats' effort to introduce Internet privacy bill

The Republican caucus of the House of Delegates scored a rare win Monday as they blocked the introduction of a bill sponsored by a Democrat that would have sought to extend to Marylanders privacy protections recently rejected in Congress.

The vote was 90-45 to allow introduction of the bill by Majority Leader Bill Frick, but 94 votes were required for legislation to be considered this late in the legislative session. The 90-day session ends next Monday.

As Frick explained it, his legislation would have provided state-level protections against Internet Service Providers (ISPs) such as Comcast or Verizon selling a subscriber's personal information.

A rule proposed by the Federal Communications Commission under the Obama administration would have barred ISPs from sharing data such as health or financial information with third parties without the customer's consent. The Republican-led Congress overturned that rule last month. President Donald J. Trump is expected to sign the GOP-backed bill.

Democrats contend that the GOP action will allow ISPs to commercialize consumers' personal information, such as their browsing history, for marketing and advertising. The rule would have held ISPs, which are essential to connecting to the web, to a higher standard for consent than websites such as Google or Facebook. Congressional Republicans contend the FCC overreached by adopting a rule that would have been unfair to the ISPs.

Frick, a Montgomery County Democrat, sought a suspension of the rules to introduce his bill, telling delegates that the General Assembly should do what it can to address what he called one of the most pressing issues facing the United States. Had the bill been introduced, it could have received a hearing before a House committee.

Permission to introduce a bill late is typically a routine matter, granted as a courtesy. Frick said he had consulted with Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga before attempting the introduction.

"This is not an attempt to railroad the minority party," Frick said. But for Republicans, usually on the losing end of a 91-50 Democratic majority, it was an opportunity to flex their muscles.

Szeliga, who represents Baltimore and Harford counties, urged her GOP colleagues to deny permission.

"I agree this is a really important issue. The bill before you will not fix it," she said. Szeliga argued that there is not enough lime left in the session to give the matter the consideration it deserves.

"This is more bringing Washington, D.C., politics to Annapolis," Szeliga said, echoing a frequent Republican complaint that Democrats have repeatedly made opposition to Trump a theme of this year's session.

Frick received only two Republican votes.

After the vote, Frick predicted there would be many angry complaints from constituents that the bill was blocked.

"They should be furious with the Republicans in the House," he said.

But Minority Leader Nic Kipke was unapologetic.

"This was our opportunity to say no, and we had the votes," the Anne Arundel County Republican said.

Frick said the issue still might come before the legislature this year. He said he's been working with Sen. James C. Rosapepe, a Prince George's County Democrat, to write the legislation. Frick said Rosapepe might attempt to introduce the bill in the Senate as early as Monday night.

If the Senate were to move the bill through committee and pass it in the time remaining, it would come back to the House.

mdresser@baltsun.com

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