You may have heard that a bill was signed by the US Congress recently which allows Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to sell your browsing data to advertisers. What does this mean for you and how does it affect your online privacy? Should you break out the tinfoil hat and unplug all your internet devices? You may not need to go to those lengths just yet, but you should certainly be informed about what’s going on. The internet has exploded on social media with discussion and speculation on what will happen, and while only time will truly tell what the fallout will be, we can provide a brief summary and analysis of what these developments mean to you, and how to protect yourself.
What happened to my Internet Privacy ?
On Monday April 4th, the President signed a bill which repeals privacy rules that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had drafted last year. These rules had actually not even gone into effect by the time the bill was signed which repealed them, but it was still a great victory for supporters of online privacy. These rules required ISPs to get your permission before using your sensitive data (physical location, browsing history, etc.) to create targeted advertisements, or to sell it to advertisers who would then make targeted ads. Of course, the vast majority of users would never consent to such a misuse of their personal data, so it was effectively a ban on this practice since virtually no one would give permission to do this.
With these rules having been repealed, it’s now a free-for-all when it comes to your data. ISPs are able to pad their wallets by selling your information to marketing agencies so they can create better ads. While some would argue that targeted advertisements are marginally better since they’re at least relevant to a person’s interests, the fact of the matter is that customers’ data shouldn’t be used for this purpose in the first place. Continue reading for a summary of how this affects you and what you can do to combat it.
What Does it Mean to Me?
How does this affect the average internet user? You’ve probably noticed that when you shop for something on Amazon, that item will usually appear in an ad on Facebook or a Google service long after you’ve left Amazon’s site. This is called a “targeted” advertisement: It uses your browsing history to let companies advertise to you even after you’ve left their website. Another example is YouTube accessing your browsing history from Chrome and suggesting videos similar to what you’ve been looking at on other sites. These targeted ads rely on service providers sharing your data between themselves, allowing companies to make a profit off of you while your privacy goes down the drain.
While many online services already have this kind of advertising, the new bill allows ISPs to do the same thing. They will compile a list of all the websites you visit and send that out to advertisers, who will buy your data and advertise to you if your browsing history suggests that you’re interested in the product or service they sell. Whereas you could previously get around targeted advertising by using the private browsing mode in your browser or disabling cookies, that will no longer be an option since it’s almost impossible to hide your browsing history from your ISP. Yes, even the stuff you don’t want anyone to see will now be freely available to advertisers who are ready to plaster related ads all over your screen.
Well Great, So How Do I Stop It?
Fortunately there are still ways to browse the internet anonymously, and without too much difficulty either. While private browsing modes are now out of the picture, you can still utilize a VPN service to cloak your browsing history and make it unreadable to your ISP. Using a VPN allows you to connect to the VPN server, and then conduct your browsing from there instead of from your PC directly.
To external parties, it will look like your requests are being sent by the VPN server instead of your actual PC, making it impossible to trace the activity back to you. To your ISP, they will only see that you connected to some VPN server somewhere; they won’t be able to see what you do after that. A VPN encrypts your data so that it would just be a bunch of gibberish to someone trying to read it.
The only party who will be able to see all of your information is the VPN server itself, which is why it’s important to ensure that your provider doesn’t retain activity logs. Most free VPN companies will do this so that they can make money by selling your data – and at that point, it causes the very problem you’re trying to avoid. It’s best to stick with paid VPN services, who usually do not retain activity logs.
For those who require the utmost in online privacy, combine a VPN service with a private browser like Tor (or any of its derivatives). Private browsers act like a VPN in themselves by bouncing your connection between several nodes to make your activity untraceable and anonymous. Keep in mind that most mainstream browsers still track your history even with a VPN, and Microsoft and Google will still collect and use your data regardless. With a private browser, not only will the VPN hide your data from the ISP, but the browser won’t retain your data or share it with any third parties.
While the repealing of these privacy laws is very concerning and bodes ill for the future of online privacy, there are still ways to protect your data, remain anonymous, and stay off of the advertisers’ lists. VPNs allow you to hide your browsing from your ISP, and private browsers add an extra layer of security to ensure that your data is not retained. Fight back with these methods, and you can continue surfing the web with peace of mind.