Thanks to a vote on Thursday by Senate Republicans, everyone’s internet browser activity just got a whole lot less private. Republicans in the Senate voted to roll back broadband privacy, which would allow internet service providers (ISPs) to sell user data to advertisers, without the permission of users.
The vote Thursday was to undo a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rule that was created under the Obama administration last year. The rule was intended to protect user privacy, focusing on “transparency, choice, and data security, and provides heightened protection for sensitive customer information, consistent with customer expectations.” Vitally, the rule required ISPs to “provide privacy notices that clearly and accurately inform customers; obtain opt-in or opt-out customer approval to use and share sensitive or non-sensitive customer proprietary information,” among other regulations.
But all of this could be over, and soon. If the rollback passes the House (which, like the Senate, is currently controlled by Republicans), advertisers will be able to buy information about your internet activity, lining the pockets of ISPs who stand to make a lot of cash from ad sales. Well, internet browser companies, and the Republicans who voted to make this happen.
In its coverage of the privacy rollback, Vocativ noted that Republicans who voted in favor of undoing the FCC rule have accepted money from major ISPs, from Verizon and T-Mobile to Comcast and Time Warner.
Vocativ also pointed out that some Democrats receive money from ISPs, but no Democrats voted in favor of undoing the FCC rule.
Democrats are, to put it lightly, not happy about seeing the rule disappear. According to Ars Technica, Massachusetts senator Ed Markey noted that president Trump has been up in arms about made-up violations of his privacy, but Republicans are now working to guarantee that regular citizens’ privacy will be compromised.
“President Trump may be outraged by fake violations of his own privacy,” Markey said following Thursday’s vote, “but every American should be alarmed by the very real violation of privacy that will result [from] the Republican roll-back of broadband privacy protections.”
Republican senator from Arizona Jeff Flake, on the other hand, is trying to sell the rollback as beneficial to consumers. Flake has said that the rollback will “protect consumers from overreaching Internet regulation,” Ars Technica reports.
But polling suggests consumers don’t want ISPs to use or sell their information to advertisers. A 2016 poll from the Pew Research Center found that nearly three quarters (74 percent) of people feel it’s “very important” that they have control over who has access to their internet activity. The same poll found that 28 percent of adults have gone out of their way to avoid data collection by advertisers online. A whopping 91 percent felt that consumers have “lost control of how personal information is collected and used by companies.”
Given the opinion of regular people using the internet, it’s hard to buy what Flake and his Republican colleagues are selling. It’s clear that the only people benefiting from the privacy rollback are ISPs and the Republicans they ply with financial support. But it looks as though the change is going to be made regardless, so how can folks protect themselves online?
The sad reality is there isn’t much anyone will be able to do if major ISPs have the legal power to sell user data. What’s worse is the ISPs won’t have to tell anyone they’re using or selling data, so there’s no way to know when they’re selling information or who they’re selling it to.
Jeremy Gillula, the Senior Staff Technologist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, tells Ars Technica that the only thing to be done is encrypting internet activity. There are three ways of accomplishing this, Ars TechnicaI reports: using a virtual private network (VPN) service, Tor, and HTTPS.
VPNs allow users to log-in to private servers remotely. Tor works by separating the pieces of information so that it doesn’t creative a cohesive picture, and HTTPS adds a layer of encryption to internet usage.
But apart from calling up Republicans in the House of Representatives and asking them not to rollback the FCC rule, that’s all anyone can do to protect their data from advertisers. So be warned.
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