Congress and Internet privacyUpdated: June 12, 2018

Less than six months after the FCC voted to pass a set of new rules to protect consumers’ Internet privacy, Congress has stopped them in their tracks with a vote to dismantle the regulations before they could truly go into effect. The bill, which was approved by the Senate last week, was passed by the House, 215-205, on March 28, and will be heading to the President’s desk, where it’s believed he will sign it into effect. As a result, not only will the previously-passed set of rules preventing Internet service providers like Verizon and Comcast from monitoring, collecting and selling customer data — including browsing habits, app usage history, location data, social security numbers and more — without consent be tossed out the window, but also the FCC will be barred from ever issuing similar rules in the future. Worried about the future of your privacy online? We’re going in-depth into this issue to help you understand exactly what happened and what it means for the average person’s Internet privacy.

What were these protections intended to do?

The FCC’s rules required Internet providers to obtain explicit consent from customers before using or sharing sensitive data with third parties, such as marketing firms, financial companies and other businesses that mine data, with special restrictions when it comes to health data, financial information, social security numbers and the content of emails and other digital messages. Additionally, the FCC rules made it imperative that providers take steps to protect their customers’ data from hackers and data breaches (and notify them in the event that their information is part of a breach).

Why would Congress vote to overturn them?

While a large majority seems to be in agreement that it’s in consumers’ best interest to know what kind of data their Internet provider is collecting and how it’s being used, as well as be able to give consent for it to be used or not, there are plenty of dissenters in the government as well as the affected industries. Advocates of dismantling the FCC’s Internet privacy protections argue that the regulations were at risk of stifling innovation on the part of the Internet companies. Further, it’s been argued that the ability to target consumers using data based on their personal browsing habits could benefit consumers by leading them to more relevant advertisements. (Note that, on June 11, 2018, the overturn of these rules took effect.)

How could this impact the average consumer?

Advocates for Internet privacy are concerned that without any regulations, Internet service providers will have free reign to spy on consumers, sell the data they glean for a profit and even turn privacy into something that can be bought. We’ve already seen this happen — in 2015, AT&T introduced its GigaPower high-speed Internet service, which offered discounts to customers who agreed to let AT&T track their online activity. The program came to an end last September, just a month before the FCC announced its new regulations for Internet privacy protection. Now that those regulations are set to be abolished, it’s possible that consumers will see these types of programs and incentives pop up again.

Although it’s true that websites like Facebook and Google operate on a business model that is based around collecting and using their users’ data to tailor the ads they see, consumers who are unhappy with such things can opt to stop using these websites to escape their data mining. Internet service providers, on the other hand, oversee all of your Internet activity and are harder — if not downright impossible — to escape. Most Americans only have a couple of choices when it comes to who they use for their Internet service.

It’s unlikely that this is the end of changes coming to the Internet in the U.S. as we know it — alongside regulations limiting what Internet providers can do with customer data, guidelines that required providers to strengthen safeguards to protect their customers’ data from hackers and identity thieves were also tossed out with this vote. Many are concerned that this will be followed up by efforts to wipe out net neutrality regulations, which are policies that forbid Internet service providers from blocking content they don’t like or charging websites a fee to reach consumers over faster Internet speeds.

How can people protect themselves?

  • Read the terms of service. It’s worth noting that most Internet service providers have their own privacy policies that they follow, which might preclude them from selling or sharing the data the FCC regulations are concerned with. Although it can be tiresome to read long terms of service agreements or privacy policies, doing so can help you understand better what your provider can and can’t do by its own terms. Breaking its own terms of service is usually not in the best interest of any company.
  • Use a VPN when you browse. We’ve talked about Virtual Private Networks in the past as a secure method of using the Internet without being tracked or monitored. These types of networks, as well as other privacy tools such as Tor, may well be the best option for those who are concerned about keeping their private data private in an unregulated Internet service provider world. That said, some sites, like Netflix, block the use of VPNs, which may decrease your ability to use one seamlessly.
  • Make sure you’re browsing secure sites. When you visit a website, ensure that HTTPS is in the URL rather than the standard HTTP. Not only is this a more secure method of browsing the Internet in general, but it lends itself to a little more privacy, as your Internet service provider will see less information regarding what you do on the websites you visit.

When it comes to regulating industries and technologies as all-consuming as the Internet, governments have a tough job. Unquestionably, Internet privacy will remain a highly-contested issue for years to come, with more regulations passed and then dismantled to start the process over again. Keep up with the news and tips you need to know by following our technology blog.