The recent repeal of an Obama-era law that would have required Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to obtain users’ permission before sharing their personal data with marketers and other third parties has created dissent within the technology sector. Not surprisingly, major ISPs like AT&T and Comcast backed the repeal effort, arguing that the law was unfair and that they would have been subject to stricter controls than companies like Facebook and Google. Consumer advocates believe the repeal will be detrimental to online privacy.
The repealed law, which was passed in October 2016 and included new rules created by the Federal Communications Commission, had yet to go into effect, so consumers probably won’t notice much difference. ISPs have been in the practice of monitoring network traffic – which means they can see which devices you use and which websites you visit – and sharing that information with third parties such as advertisers. An overview of how this might affect you follows.
Is This Repeal a Big Deal?
Many consumer advocates involved with internet privacy issues believe this is a big deal. The new FCC rules would have created much stronger privacy protection for internet users. The law, which was passed just before President Trump’s election, would have required ISPs to get a clear go-ahead from users to share personal data – including precise location information, financial data, health information, Social Security numbers, app usage history, as well as information on the users’ children. In addition, the new legislation would have allowed users to protect less sensitive personal data such as email addresses.
The new FCC chief, Ajit Pai, has said that the repeal would help level the playing field, citing that the new rules would have benefited “one group of favored companies over another group of disfavored companies.” He vowed to protect consumer privacy through a “consistent and comprehensive framework.” This response did little to reassure advocates of internet privacy rights. A group known as Fight for the Future issued a statement decrying Congress’ move, saying “…they care more about the wishes of the corporations that fund their campaigns than the safety and security of their constituents.” This group has launched a billboard campaign to identify the members of Congress who backed the repeal.
What Can You Do to Safeguard Your Data Online?
Some privacy advocates are recommending that consumers use a virtual private network (VPN) to hide their browsing history and data from internet service providers. A VPN can also mask your location. If you wish to explore this option, be aware that VPNs are linked to service providers, which means it is incumbent on you to find a VPN whose privacy policies match yours. There is software available that also can hide your location and identity. These solutions have their issues, too. Some broadcasters – like Netflix – block VPN users from accessing their content. Software that hides your location and identity might slow your browsing down somewhat.
Internet privacy has been a hot issue for some time. These latest moves are likely to keep the topic in the headlines in the months ahead.