Congress recently passed a law repealing a set of Internet privacy rules, in a move that’s taken the media by storm and for good reason. In the wake of this new legislation, there’s been a lot of confusion over what it means for the privacy of consumer Internet data. President Donald Trump still has to sign the new bill, so it isn’t even law yet. But it’s expected he will do so, and soon. No one understands the full impact of this repeal just yet, but here’s what we know right now:
During Barack Obama’s presidency, Congress, working with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) passed a set of rules that were aimed at regulating Internet Service Providers (ISPs) such as Comcast, Verizon and AT&T. These rules prevented ISPs from sharing their customers’ web browsing histories without their permission and placed other restrictions on how their data could be used. The newly elected Congress, working with new FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, repealed those rules with no indication of replacing them. That’s left everyone confused over what the ISPs can and can’t do.
On the one hand, ISPs could now potentially sell your web browsing history to a third-party provider for advertising purposes, but they also might decide not to. The point the FCC seems to be making right now (until we know more later) is that it should be up to the ISP companies themselves to decide, rather than the federal government. Of course, that makes the internet companies happy to be given a choice rather than being forced to follow any regulations, but it leaves consumer advocacy groups worried about who is protecting the users.
It should be noted that giant companies using your data without your consent isn’t new—Facebook and Google do it all the time. However, consumer advocate groups argue the biggest difference (and their biggest concern) between a company like Facebook and one like Comcast is that the user has a choice whether to use Facebook or a different social media site. The user doesn’t always have multiple options for an internet provider, depending on where they live. (If you’re familiar with the idea of using Comcast or nothing, and very reluctantly choosing Comcast, you understand the dilemma here.) They also argue that as a service provider, they can have more access to data than a regular website.
How does this affect IT service providers like us? At Online Tech, while we unfortunately can’t guarantee that we will protect your data from being harvested by ISPs, we can guarantee that we will never, ever sell your browsing data to a third-party provider.
If you’re concerned about who’s collected your data, there are ways to mask your browsing history. Here’s how to protect yourself at home:
- Invest in a VPN: A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, encrypts the traffic coming in and out of your computer, making it difficult for an ISP (or anyone) to track you. But there are downsides: They aren’t free, and some services like Neflix can tell if you’re using them and block your access.
- Visit HTTPS sites: ISPs can’t track pages within a domain that uses HTTPS. However, they can still see that you visited the original page. So if you went to https://www.nytimes.com, an ISP could see you visited there, but not know what articles you read or comments you made within the site.
- You could download Tor: Tor is a free browser that anonymizes your history by redistributing your traffic through a series of relays, or nodes. With Tor, an ISP monitoring network traffic could see that someone went to the New York Times site, but not know where that request came from. However, there are a couple of downsides: A lot of people used Tor to visit the Silk Road site on the Dark Web, which means the FBI and other government agencies are spending a lot of time studying Tor and figuring out how to crack it. It also slows down your internet connection because you’re being rerouted through so many different nodes.
Perhaps surprisingly, the major ISP providers already offer opt-out options, although it can take some time to find them. Comcast, Charter, AT&T, and T-Mobile (though you first need to see a targeted T-Mobile ad before opting out) all offer their customers the ability to opt-out, while both Verizon and Sprint actually require customers to opt in to targeting advertising. While you can’t stop your ISP from collecting data about you, choosing to opt out of targeting advertising does give you a say in what happens with your data.