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Can You Put a Price on Privacy?
Internet users have always had to carefully balance access and privacy. Websites like Facebook, for instance, gather data about their users and sell this to companies who wish to perform highly targeted advertising. It’s why, after you’ve been discussing vacation plans with your Facebook friends, you’ll begin seeing ads for getaways in your Facebook feed. Most people have at least grudgingly agreed to this arrangement — you get free use of these sites in exchange for the data that you share.
Different sites have different guidelines and if you take the time to read the very small print before you hit the “I agree with these terms and conditions” button, you get to have some control over who sees what you do online.
However, a new vote from Congress will mean far less choice in how much of your data is shared and where. Under a recently approved bill, internet service providers (ISPs) will be able to sell your personalized browsing history without your permission or knowledge.
Historically, the FCC has been very protective of consumer data. Information shared over telephone calls, for instance, was considered the property of the consumer and not the carrier.
Under the Obama administration, work was done to extend this sort of protection to consumers’ internet browsing data. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) drafted rules that would give consumers control over how much of their data ISPs could share.
ISPs would have to ask for explicit permission to share sensitive information such as health or financial details before it could be shared or sold. These protections, passed in October 2016, had not yet gone into effect.
The House, however, quietly passed a bill that would roll back those protections. Under the new law, ISPs would be able to gather information about your browsing habits and sell it. Additionally, the FCC would be banned from making new rules in the future about consumers’ internet privacy.
The Senate approved the bill in mid-March and votes were divided on party lines. Now that the bill has also moved through the House, the only thing standing between us and that new bill is a signature from President Trump. Experts expect that Trump will sign this bill into law.
The bill is a major gift to ISPs who have argued that current rules put them at a disadvantage compared to providers like Google or Facebook. Unlike ISPs, which are regulated by the FCC, companies like Google and Facebook are regulated by the Federal Trade Commission and have looser requirements.
What Changes Under the New Law?
ISPs will now be able to gather and share or sell information about you and your browsing habits. These, in turn, can be used by advertisers to put more targeted ads in front of you during your surfing sessions. Third party networks that currently collect your data also have rules about how it can be used. Facebook, for instance, collects a great deal of data that is made available to those who advertise on their network. However, since they want those advertisers to buy ads on Facebook, they may limit how the data that they sell can be used.
ISPs may use data in the same way. They will offer this browsing info to businesses who want to use it to target ads to you based on your interests as expressed in your search history. ISPs gather huge amounts of information about their users; individuals use the internet to look at their banking and investment statements, results from medical tests and more.
This information will no longer be safeguarded.
Additionally, the FCC, under Trump, has rolled back a requirement that ISPs put “reasonable measures” into place to protect confidential data obtained from their clients. After AT&T was fined for loose security that allowed their employees to steal and sell private information about hundreds of thousands of clients, this is a real risk.
How Can You Safeguard Your Data?
In most cases, you will not be able to opt out unless you choose an ISP that chooses not to gather and sell data. Most areas have monopolies, which means finding another ISP will not be an option for most consumers.
Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are an option in some cases. These tools mask your IP address, which can help cut down tracking on the part of your ISP. However, some websites may not work correctly when a VPN is in place.
You can choose financial and medical services that encrypt your information. You can also use encryption tools on email to allow less information to be plainly shared.
To protect yourself from the behavioral advertising that currently tracks your moves on third-party websites, look for indications that you are seeing behavioral ads; most, for instance, will have a small “i” in a triangle at the corner when they are served up. Click the icon to opt out.
Finally, let your representatives know how you feel about your online privacy and your browsing data being sold by your ISP. By making your voice heard, you can change minds and affect laws and continue to enjoy the privacy you expect online.