5 Ways to Protect Your Privacy Following Repeal of FCC's Internet Privacy Rules

If the privacy rules had been left alone, they would have gone into effect at the end of this year. But because of the way the new resolution was written, the FCC will likely be barred from writing any similar rules in the future.

by Molly Rosbach, Yakima Herald-Republic, Wash. / March 30, 2017
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(TNS) -- On Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to scrap internet privacy rules recently created by the Federal Communications Commission that would have required internet service providers to get permission from users before selling their browsing history and other personal data to advertisers, among other measures.

The Senate made the same vote last week, and President Trump has signaled his intent to sign the resolution.

If the privacy rules had been left alone, they would have gone into effect at the end of this year. But because of the way the new resolution was written, the FCC will likely be barred from writing any similar rules in the future.

Right now, it’s kind of obscure; everyone thinks, ‘How does this affect me?’ Well, you’ll know soon enough

So while no active privacy protections have actually been lost as a result of the resolution, no new protections will go into effect.

Rep. Dan Newhouse voted to scrap the rules, along with most of his Republican counterparts. But unlike in the Senate, where the vote fell exactly along party lines, some House Republicans, including Washington Reps. Dave Reichert and Jaime Herrera Beutler, voted against repealing the privacy regulations.

In an emailed statement, Newhouse said current internet privacy protections are sufficient, and the FCC’s newer rules would have only provided “a false sense of security” to consumers, because they only applied to broadband providers like Verizon and AT&T, while companies such as Google and Facebook are already selling users’ browsing data to advertisers.

How to protect your privacy

1. Consider changing ISPs: While this is not always an option, you may be able to seek out a smaller, more local internet service provider that is less likely to sell your browsing data to outside advertisers. You can also comb through user agreements with your current ISP (and any websites or apps you use) to opt out of them selling your data, if this option is available.

2. Install the HTTPS Everywhere extension: This is a free browser extension that turns on the secure “https” option of any site that offers it, rather than the unsecure “http” version (the “s” stands for “secure”). Using https means your ISP can see which site you visit, but not which page you browse to while there.

3. Use a VPN, or “virtual private network,” to make your browsing data anonymous to your internet service provider: User information is channeled through the network so all your data appears to be coming from the VPN, rather than your personal device. Experts especially recommend using VPNs when on public Wi-Fi networks.

4. Use Tor software to make your data hard to track: Tor bounces your internet traffic through servers all over the world, so ISPs can’t pin down where your personal browsing data is coming from.

5. Watch this video:

Internet providers have complained that the FCC’s stricter privacy rules would have put them at a disadvantage to social media sites already selling browsing data, and Republicans say the rules were inconsistent and confusing.

“(The resolution) maintains current privacy protections for consumers; those protections should be consistent and applied uniformly to internet service providers as well as other internet content providers,” Newhouse said. “The midnight regulation by the Federal Communications Commission, at the very end of the Obama Administration, never went into effect.”

Providers such as Verizon and AT&T are classified as “common carriers,” delivering service as a public utility, and they charge customers for their internet service. Sites like Google and Facebook are free, and make their revenue from ad sales. ISPs also have much broader access to users’ data, since they see everything, though many major websites track users even after they leave the site.

The rules were approved in October 2016, after the 2015 Open Internet Order put internet service providers’ privacy policies under the FCC’s purview, rather than under the Federal Trade Commission, which has looser guidelines that don’t require companies to ask users to “opt-in” in order to sell their personal data.

In the 2016 election cycle, Newhouse received a total of $10,000 in campaign contributions from AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and T-Mobile, according to the online campaign finance database Follow The Money. Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers, who also voted for the resolution, received $75,900 from the telecom industry in 2016, including $28,000 from those four companies.

“There’s not really a pro-consumer (angle) here,” said John Storlie, co-owner of Yakima Networking, which provides managed IT services for local businesses. “It doesn’t benefit the consumer; it benefits the company. It just gives them more to sell.”

When companies such as Facebook and Google sell users’ browsing data to advertisers, it leads to more targeted ads popping up on other websites. (So if you ever google ticket prices for ‘Hamilton: An American Musical,’ suddenly, every corner of your web browser is full of ads for the show.)

“As consumers, we’re products, effectively, and this is taking advantage of that,” Storlie said. “I don’t know what the benefit to the consumer is; maybe you get more directed ads but do we want that?”

Since the new resolution doesn’t change how service providers currently operate, the public seems to be fairly unaware of what’s going on, Storlie said.

“Right now, it’s kind of obscure; everyone thinks, ‘How does this affect me?’ Well, you’ll know soon enough,” he said. “These are tiny liberties that are going away, a tiny bit at a time, and it doesn’t look like a lot right now, but when they’re all stacked up, it may mean in the future you’ll have to encrypt every bit of your web traffic unless you want people to see it.”

The spectre of who might want to purchase that data in the future is scary, too, Storlie said. Insurance providers could theoretically charge someone higher rates due to browser history that indicates unsafe choices, for example.

“I think people should be concerned about this,” he said.

©2017 Yakima Herald-Republic (Yakima, Wash.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.