Last October, Congress approved legislation aimed at protecting consumer privacy from internet providers. Set to go into effect later in 2017, these new internet privacy rules have been nullified before they had begun. The question many American consumers are left asking is: will my personal browsing information be sold to the highest bidder?
Behavioral targeting on steroids
In the wake of the Republican-led vote and President Trump’s subsequent signature, the legislation allows Internet service providers or ISPs, such as Verizon or Comcast, to market available personal information and browsing habits to companies interested in targeting particular consumers. Americans are familiar with this practice, employed by other companies such as Google and Facebook. For example, when Facebook displays advertisements for products you have researched, this marketing principle is at play. The digital marketing industry is quickly outpacing other forms of more traditional advertisements and marketing.
This capacity has been denied to ISPs because they have an inordinate amount of personal information about their users. The main difference, detractors note, is in scale. A particular website only has the data it collects during your interaction with it. However, an internet provider can access a full accounting of your engagement with every website you use.
‘Show me the money!’
Consumer advocacy groups, such as the Center for Digital Democracy, believe that this action by Congress leaves consumers completely unprotected from unscrupulous companies who will prey on them by selling their locations, spending habits, or even social security numbers. But lawmakers argue that these measures will boost the economy by allowing ISPs to increase revenue. Another defense is that by tailoring ads and marketing to a person’s preferences, it may actually benefit the consumer. Furthermore, most ISPs already adhere to voluntary privacy policies protecting their users, and they could still be held legally accountable if they violate these policies.
This battle for control of the internet by the FCC and the FTC leaves some consumers feeling vulnerable. But as deregulation trends in legislation continue under the Republican majority in Congress, consumers do not have to just hope the best for their interests in the market. They can act in a few key ways to preserve their own internet privacy.
Protecting your internet privacy
As participants in the internet marketplace, users should be aware of two popular safeguards to make their information safer: the use of VPNs and websites with the HTTPS designation.
- VPNs, or virtual private networks, can effectively hide your online location and identity, helping to protect your personal information. These networks may come with fees and should be fully vetted to ensure their legitimacy. Also, some sites won’t allow use with VPNs (one prominent example is Netflix).
- Another small step is to always use the encrypted HTTPS version of a website. This method is more secure than the standard HTTP website and can mask some of your activity while on that particular site.