In a monumental ruling, the U.S. Senate and House have voted to give Internet Service Providers in the U.S. the right to sell and share customers’ personal web-browsing data without their consent. This overturns an FCC ruling in October 2016 that was to prevent ISPs from passing on their customers’ data without the customer’s explicit consent and will have vast implications for customers’ privacy.
Now that the ruling has passed through the House, it will be up to President Trump to make the final call on this becoming law.
How Did This Happen?
The FCC ruling back in October was welcomed as a landmark victory for online privacy, withstanding pressure from influential ISPs like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon to allow consumers to browse the Web with the knowledge that they weren’t being constantly snooped on for commercial purposes. Unless ISPs got explicit “opt-in” consent from customers, they weren’t allowed to access your Internet usage information for commercial means.
Since then, however, the FCC leadership has shifted from Democratic control to Republican, and they strongly opposed the original ruling from the start. The Senate and the House, both also currently controlled by Republicans, have now exercised their power to negate the FCC’s ruling and take the power out of the FCC’s hands to make other such rulings in the future.
The news will be welcomed by ISPs and the advertising industry, as it will unlock access to untold amounts of customer data to be used for targeted advertising, selling to insurance companies, location tracking, the works. The Republicans will argue that encouraging practices that maximize business profitability is good for the economy, which will ultimately lead to greater prosperity for the ordinary American.
What Can You Do About It?
Although the ruling hasn’t passed yet, it has a pretty clear run all the way to the White House because every subsequent step of the legislative process is Republican-controlled. So it’s worth preparing for this to happen.
The issue here is not only that ISPs will be able to target you with advertising (potentially subjecting you to ads and unwanted emails from various companies based on your browsing habits) but also the idea that something as personal as your browsing history will be floating around in the ether of the business and advertising world.
So what can you do about it? In today’s world where intrusions on our digital lives are seemingly becoming the norm, the business of privacy has flourished, and there are several privacy-oriented ISPs who may respond to this ruling by siding with the customer. Sonic, for example, is a reasonably-priced small ISP that’s long been advocating customer privacy, and it’d be surprising not to hear them re-emphasize that they won’t be following the intrusive practices of the bigger providers. Credo Mobile, meanwhile, is a cell provider that has always had an excellent privacy record, and it’s worth keeping an eye on them to see how they respond to this ruling.
Also be prepared for other privacy-focused ISPs and businesses to arise in the wake of this ruling, so not all hope should be lost.
If you don’t want to change your ISP or, more likely, if you’re not in a place where you can get their services, then using a VPN is the simplest option. For a monthly or annual fee (usually around $60 a year), you can get services from top VPN providers like IPVanish, TorGuard and the wonderfully-titled Hide My Ass VPN. You could also splash out for a VPN router, bolstering your privacy to a hardware level. These things will hide your browsing info from your ISP, preventing them from seeing – and profiting from – your online activity.