Yesterday, the US House of Representatives joined the Senate in voting to overturn the 2015 FCC rule that would have prevented your Internet Service Provider (ISP) from tracking your browsing history, using it to serve you advertising, and even selling that history to third parties without offering you the opportunity to opt out. The rule change is now headed to President Trump's desk, where he intends to sign it.
The rational for this rule change was defined as one of "fairness". According to an editorial in the Wall Street Journal by Senator Jeff Flake (R-Arizona), "The commission’s rules suffocate industry and harm consumers by creating two completely different sets of requirements for different parts of the internet."
However, this argument is oblivious to the fact that there are different parts of the Internet, and these parts operate quite differently. Sites like Google and Facebook have privacy issues covered under looser FTC (not FCC) rules because Internet users have a choice on which service to use - we can search via Bing, DuckDuckGoGo or numerous other search engines - or even decide not to use them at all. And Google can't see ALL of our browsing history, only the specific searches we choose to enter. Whereas in many parts of the country, consumers have little or no choice in ISP if they want Internet access - i.e., it's Comcast or nothing. And that ISP can monitor EVERY site we go to, no matter how personal or private. Worse, it's trivially easy for them to match that browsing with your personal data, since they already have your name, address and, often, social security number, as well.
It's important to note that the overturning of the FCC privacy rules doesn't actually change what's happening today, only what would have needed to take place later this year. Currently, ISPs are not prevented from tracking your browsing and using it for marketing purposes, and now they will be free to continue to do so.
While we strongly believe the government is going in the wrong direction on this issue, if protecting your browsing history from ISPs is a concern for you, there are steps you can take. Using a VPN to access the Internet will prevent your ISP from seeing what sites you access, as well as encrypting all of your Internet traffic. NordVPN was a PC Magazine Editor's Choice and worked well in our testing (Disclosure: we have an affiliate relationship with NordVP). We have more VPN options in Techlicious Deals.
The downside to VPNs is the cost of using them (there are free VPNs out there, but we would suggest staying clear of those because of sub-optimal performance and business ethics concerns). For those looking for a free alternative, you can use Tor. Like VPNs, TOR offers complete privacy from ISP monitoring. The downside is highly inconsistent performance and more technical tweaking of your browser if you want a full web experience.
[Image credit: US Capitol building via BigStockPhoto]