Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Congress Just Killed Landmark FCC Internet Privacy Rules. What to Do?

Today, Republican-led Congress had its final vote to repeal online privacy rules imposed by the FCC last year. The repeal will become final after President signs it, which he is expected to do, as the White House has already published a statement announcing strong support of the repeal.  This is a big victory for telecoms and a defeat for consumer-protection advocates.

The now-blocked FCC's protections would have required ISPs to ask users for opt-in before sharing your personal data, browsing history, buying habits, location, app usage, etc.  The rules had also required ISPs to strengthen protection for user data against hackers.

The FCC is also precluded from issuing similar rules in the future. With no new FCC rules on the horizon, the ISPs can now sell their users’ information directly to marketers that mine personal data without consumer's consent.  ISPs can normally see all of the sites consumer visits, unless the consumer takes steps to hide data from the ISP, as discussed below.

What can consumers do to protect their privacy? They can find a broadband provider who does not collect personal data or they can hide their browsing history from the ISP. However, switching a broadband provider may not be possible due to the lack of competition in this market. Most Americans only have one or two broadband providers in the area. hiding browsing activity can be done via a Virtual Private Network (VPN).

VPN is sort of a middleman between you and your ISP. When you connect to a VPN, it handles all of your traffic. Your ISP then sees that you connected to a VPN server but the ISP does not see what sites are you visiting after that. VPNs are not a perfect solution. First of all, you need to find a VPN that is certain not to sell your data itself. Second, some companies (e.g. Netflix) try to block VPNs to ensure people are not accessing content that is not licensed in foreign countries and to block hackers.