You may have heard a lot of news recently about internet service providers (ISPs) tracking your browsing history and selling all your data. What does this mean, and how can you best protect yourself?
Traditionally, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has been in charge of regulating ISPs. In early 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to reclassify broadband Internet access as a “common carrier” service, as part of a push for net neutrality. This moved the regulation of ISPs from the FTC to the FCC.
The FCC then placed restrictions on what ISPs were and weren’t allowed to do with their customers. ISPs would be prevented from redirecting search traffic, injecting additional ads into web pages, and selling user data (like location and browsing history), among other practices that are profitable at the expense of users.
In March 2017, the Senate and House voted on a Congressional Review Act (CRA) resolution to repeal the FCC’s privacy rules, and prevent them from making future regulations. Their justification for the bill was that companies like Google and Facebook are allowed to sell this information, and that the regulations unfairly prevent ISPs from competing. Lawmakers claimed that because Google has roughly an 81% market share in search, they have more market control than any ISP. While Google’s dominance in search is real, internet users have the option to avoid Google, or Facebook, or any other site. Most people use Google for search, but there are plenty of other options and it’s easy to switch. Using tools like Privacy Badger, it’s pretty easy to avoid Google or Facebook’s analytics around the web. In comparison, all of your internet traffic goes through your ISP, and very few Americans have more than one or two choices.
The bill was signed by the President in early April. While not all of the FCC’s regulations had gone into effect before they were voided, this is still a major blow to the privacy of Americans online. Because ISPs are still classified as common carriers, no other regulatory body has the oversight to reinstate these rules.
Many of the FCC’s regulations were due to begin throughout 2017 and 2018. Big ISPs have been tracking their users for years. Verizon famously used to inject a supercookie into all of their customers’ browser requests, allowing them (and third parties) to track individual users across the web. The supercookie was being added to requests after they had left the users’ computers, so there was no way to avoid them until Verizon caved and added an opt-out. For a while, AT&T charged clients an extra $30 per month to not track their internet usage. This case was the inspiration for the FCC’s privacy regulations.
It’s easy to think: “Well, we’re no worse off than we were a year ago.” And that may be partially true. We’re living under the same rules we were then; it’s just that they now won’t change for the better. It still isn’t possible to purchase an individual’s internet history; the data is anonymized and sold to advertisers and other organizations in bulk.
However, these new regulations (that now aren’t going to go into effect) would have patched up a significant hole in internet privacy. If you dig deep into anonymized data, it can be easy to uncover its owner. Plus, there’s the argument to be made that ISPs are, in effect, double-dipping. The position that this ruling puts ISPs in a more competitive space with services like Google is a bit disingenuous. ISPs rule the “final mile” to their customers’ premises, and we already pay good money for access to it.Read More...
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