The U.S. Congress repealed the FCC broadband/ Internet privacy rules established in the latter days of the Obama administration in late March, 2017. President Trump signed this repeal on April 3. Untouched, those rules would have gone into effect later this year. Those rules were an outgrowth of the Federal Communication Commission’s battle to protect net neutrality. You may be asking yourself – why does this matter, what will this change, and how will you and your clients be affected.
What you need to know:
- Although most Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have said nothing has changed, they are free to change their policies at any time going forward. Consumers will not have a choice (to opt-in or opt-out).
- It will be much easier for ISPs (think AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and similar corporations) to track your specific browsing history across all devices.
- If an ISP decides to intercept search requests, they could send results from their own marketing databases (instead of the results someone might expect).
- There is also a risk that such “injection” could be hijacked or compromised by malicious individuals. These large databases of consumer information would also be prime targets for hackers.
- Previously, if you didn’t like the amount of data collected by a corporation (for example, Facebook), you could simply choose not to use their services and select some competitor. That will no longer be an option since your ISP will be the one tracking all your access (potentially).
- There will not be any filters regarding your browsing history and how it can be used. You will have very limited control over what is shared with others (or sold).
Why this is important
In a nutshell, this is game changer (particularly in the U.S.). Up to this point, individual sites collected data (and used it to target ads). As a general rule, if a service appears free on the WWW, you are likely paying for it with your personal data. Facebook would be an excellent example of this. Using this company an example, Facebook wants you to visit Facebook so they can mine the data you share and can then sell targeted ads. These sorts of ads are likely to generate more revenue for the advertiser. That being said, each company wants to keep the data they collect about you to themselves. Frankly, information equals power these days. The more a company knows about you (and your browsing habits and searches), the better they can target ads.
That being said, there are limits. Most of us have smartphones, tablets, laptops and other devices. Trying to identify the common visitor across all these devices is a lot easier when the Internet Service Provider can be involved. One can no longer opt out by choosing an alternative company (perhaps DuckDuckGo instead of Google or Bing for Internet searches, for example).
Those of us who have been alive much longer than the WWW understand that limits were set in place for other technologies. For example, phone companies could not collect specific information that you were calling a physician or attorney and then target you with ads for similar types of services. The previous rules likened much Internet traffic to be similar to telephone traffic (and under the same guidelines).
Who voted for and against
Here are the details (who voted for and against this bill in the House of Representatives). For the senate version, votes followed party lines. We also found this overview of how we got to this point informative.
You will have less control of how your online history is used
With the elimination of these Internet Privacy rules, more of your online history will be available to more companies and you will have less control over how it is used. In addition to now being able to collect vast amounts of information from their customers, each company can use said information to provide targeted ads or can sell the collected data to others. Each company is free to change their policies at any time. That is why this is such an important change.
We found this NPR article to provide a solid overview of the situation and what your options are.
Help your customers understand these changes
Undoubtedly, some of your customers will have questions. More sophisticated customers will have detailed questions. At a minimum, we recommend mentioning these main points:
- Internet Service Providers are able to change their policies at will. There is now much less oversight by the FCC and FTC.
- It is likely there will be more tracking/ recording of your browser history and this data may be used for more targeted advertising. Much more data is likely to be collected (and shared or sold). As a consumer, you will likely not have the option to either opt-in or opt-out of such data collection. Many do not have the luxury of being able to easily select another ISP.
- For additional information, you may wish to review this FAQ regarding what happens as these rules are cancelled.
For those who wish to pursue more privacy, here are some of the things you can do today:
- Download and use the HTTPS everywhere extension for Firefox, Chrome, and Opera
- Consider employing a tool like Privacy Badger to block spies and hidden trackers on sites you visit
- Consider using a VPN
- Consider using Tor as your browser
- You might also want to introduce some Internet noise (a tool which loads random sites so your actual searches are obscured by large amounts of nonsense searches). This latter tool certainly will not protect your privacy; it will only generate additional “noise” which will obscure your actual search interests among a larger amount of random searches.
The bottom line is that there will be more data available for marketers. While this may be a plus for Web marketers, this is a giant step backwards for privacy advocates.
This has the potential to allow much more focused ads as big data and predictive analytics are brought to bear on an ever increasing amount of consumer information. If one is in marketing, they need to remain aware of consumer concerns.
Practicing web professionals should leverage this change as an opportunity to inform and educate their customers/ clients regarding what may be collected and how best to deal with this new reality (perhaps recommending using a VPN and plugins like those mentioned above).
The Electronic Frontier Foundation recently posted a list of ISPs that respect your privacy. They also provided a solid overview of how to protect your privacy from your ISP. This article also included a number of questions to ask about any VPN (before you purchase). Examples include:
- How long has the VPN been in business?
- Does the VPN log your traffic?
- Is the traffic encrypted? Is there a single shared password for all encryption?
- Would the VPN leak your DNS queries to your ISP?
- Does the VPN support IPv6?
We anticipate that this is only the beginning of the discussion regarding increased awareness of privacy issues on the part of consumers and professionals alike.
Community Evangelist and Executive Director