What does your privacy mean to you? This is a human right, so consider your response carefully. You might value it a great deal, or you might figure that it’s no big issue because you don’t do anything wrong. There’s a considerable problem if you answered the latter — and indeed the former, because while privacy might be paramount to you, it’s a commodity to a vast number of services.
However much you value your privacy as a concept, your Internet Service Provider (ISP) can soon put a price tag on it.
And without your consent.
What’s Actually Happened?
During Barack Obama’s time in the White House, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruled that ISPs must obtain the permission of their users before selling personal data on.
That bill will be repealed, pending a virtually-inevitable signature from President Trump.
The Congressional Review Act (CRA) resolution passed by the Senate last week, and the House of Representatives approved it on 28th March 2017, meaning ISPs are just waiting for the final word from the President.
The Broadband Consumer Privacy Proposal would likely have come into play by the end of this year. But if it’s wiped from the slate, providers can carry on collecting and selling your information as they please.
Of course your data is being sold on already; namely to advertisers, so your internet experience is a uniquely personal one. Personalized advertising space can command big bucks. Everything you see can be targeted right at you. You already see personalized content, so that might not seem a massive problem to you right now, but it really is a big concern, especially considering such information would include your browsing history, geolocation data, and potentially financial details (knowing which bank you visit online, for instance).
The soon-to-be-repealed rule also would’ve forced ISPs to let their users know when a breach occurs. If a hacker gets hold of your details, you’d want to know about it, right? However, not knowing might be a good thing, at least in some circumstances.
What Does This Mean for You?
We’ve been warned for years that browsing history could be leaked, and used against us. This feels like a step towards that.
The significance of this might not be so evident. A lot of your life is already detailed on the internet. Google collects data all the time. Facebook knows so much about you, it can even identify what you look like. The problem is, social media and even search engines are not all-consuming. They’re pretty easy to escape. Don’t want Facebook to know your interests? Don’t ‘like’ anything. Worried Google has a monopoly on what you enjoy? Switch to a private tool.
But evading the watchful eye of your ISP is like Winston Smith’s struggle against Big Brother.
You might feel assured that going on a site using HTTPS means a certain level of encryption; that’s true, but it only makes it (next to) impossible for third-parties to note down your passwords. An ISP can still see the domain you’re visiting.
We should question what’s made the majority of the population give up their right to privacy. Is it in fear of terrorism? Just as a consequence of political movers? Or, more worryingly, don’t people value online anonymity as they should?
Interestingly, this comes about a year after Verizon was fined $1.35 million by the FCC for subjecting its users to “supercookies” without getting their expressed permissions. Yes, just $1.35 million. You have to wonder how much money Verizon has made from these trackers which give advertisers a permanent profile of browsing habits…
What Can You Do About It?
As previously noted, you already have to be careful online because search engines (most of them, at least) track you. Similarly, social media can be to blame. Take sensible precautions against these: manage your Facebook privacy settings because details gleaned from there can be used to customize adverts all over the web, for instance.
Use HTTPS whenever you can, of course, but this won’t stop ISPs snooping.
Your first port of call is to inquire with your ISP. Check their Terms and Conditions: some may offer a way to opt-out. Repealing the bill leaves a lot of ambiguity in relation to Title II, Section 22 of the Communications Act. This was written in 1996 to cater for telephonic services, so it’s had to be updated to include specifications about the internet. Dallas Harris, Legal and Policy Fellow at Public Knowledge, said:
“It’s just not clear what information [ISPs are] going to require an opt-in for and what information they’re going to require an opt-out for. That will all be up to the ISP to determine what they feel they need to get opt-in for as opposed to opt-out.”
If they don’t, contact them and ask why not. Using a social platform like Twitter might give you some leverage, and spread the message. You’re a valued customer; they should respect your thoughts on the matter.
REMINDER: Congress (WHO WE PAY) just passed a bill allowing your ISP's (WHO WE ALSO PAY) to sell your web browser history. Who wants this?!?
— Brothers Osborne (@brothersosborne) March 31, 2017
Otherwise, you’re not helpless. Drastic action might mean switching to a provider who takes your privacy seriously. Numerous smaller ISPs unsuccessfully urged US Representatives to reinforce the Broadband Consumer Privacy Proposal, stating that they value your privacy. These include Gold Rush Internet, Etheric Networks, and Pacific Internet.
Another option is of course to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN). These encrypt all communications, so your ISP can see you’re using a VPN, but not which domains you’re visiting. See our list of the best VPNs for more details (our favorite is ExpressVPN).
Tor, meanwhile, masks your IP address, so traffic only displays as coming from an exit node. Whichever VPN service you go for, you can rest assured that you’re doing all you can to stay private.
Is There Anything Else You Can Do?
Finally, it’s worth keeping an eye on Max Temkin, creator of Cards Against Humanity. Once this bill’s repealed, Temkin plans to purchase and publish the browsing histories of the congress members who voted to get rid of these privacy restrictions. It’s in an effort to show that selling browsing data works both ways; or as campaign director of Fight for the Future, Evan Greer puts it:
“Congress should know by now that when you come for the Internet, the Internet comes for you.”
You could also check out SearchInternetHistory, run by privacy advocate, Adam McElhaney. He’s received some flak for setting up a GoFundMe page. Nonetheless, we should still encourage anyone fighting the good fight!
Does the repeal particularly bother you, or do you think it’s merely business as usual? Do you have any other tips for staying anonymous? And do you think this is indicative for the future of ISPs worldwide?
Image Credit: Andy Dean Photography via Shutterstock.com