The U.S. Congress has passed the repeal of the broadband carrier privacy rules that required ISPs to seek consumer consent before selling Web browsing and app usage data to advertisers. The law was approved by the Obama administration and scheduled to take effect by the end of this year. It means that ISPs are legally entitled to sell their users’ browsing history to the highest bidder by default and without requiring permission.
Of course, free services like Google and Facebook have been doing this for years but people pay for a broadband connection. That makes it quite a bit different. While ISPs should provide an opt out, the measure erodes any vestige of privacy for surfing. People who are not reasonably tech-savvy may be totally unaware of the new playing field and fall victim by default.
So What Can You Do?
The usual precautionary measures such as clearing browser history and deleting cookies, setting browser to incognito or private mode, or installing software designed to prevent tracking by advertisers are rendered ineffective since your browsing sessions take place via servers and network of the ISPs. Instead, here’s a list of viable solutions to prevent an ISP from selling your Web data:
1. Apply to opt out
ISPs should provide this option. If not, users should contact them. It’s not exactly ironclad because many ISPs are vague about exactly how they track the online activity of their subscribers. The FCC fined Verizon $1.35 million last year because it neglected to tell smartphone users that it was using “supercookie” technology to track their browsing habits, regardless of privacy settings, and did not initially provide an opt-out.
2. Switch to a different ISP
Not all ISPs will implement this legal data sharing opportunity. Some smaller ISPs actually protested against the repeal. Changing ISPs may be easier said than done for users in rural locations where choice is limited or non-existent. However, expect some ISPs to develop a non-sharing policy as a marketing strategy. Watch this space.
3. Invest in a VPN
A Virtual Private Network is like an encrypted tunnel between a computer or phone and the Internet. In theory it guarantees privacy but not all VPNs are equal. Buyers should perform due diligence by way of researching expert reviews. That One Privacy Site is an excellent review and monitoring service run by a knowledgeable enthusiast for the tech and privacy savvy individuals. It’s probably best to avoid the free services because, who knows, maybe they might as well sell the browsing history of their subscribers. After all, they must generate revenue somehow. A VPN will slow down surfing and users may not be able to view high quality video streams on Netflix, for example.
4. Use Tor
Tor supplies a browser and service that hides your location and conceals your surfing activity so that it cannot be tracked. There are many thousand computers, called relays, in the Tor network, all provided on a voluntary basis by fans of the service. The service bounces the web traffic of its users between several of these relays on a random basis. Like a VPN, it slows surfing speeds. Also, it is for the technically minded only – or perhaps configured by a technically minded friend.
The privacy law repeal only impacts ISPs in the U.S., but the implications are applicable to Internet consumers across the world. Many countries have not enforced strict privacy laws to prevent ISPs and internet companies from freely selling consumer Web data. In this case, consumers are at their own discretion to adopt Internet privacy best practices.