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Say Goodbye to Online Privacy, America

A look at the bill passed through Congress to the President's desk, and what you can do to protect yourself


In a new blow to online privacy, President Trump is about to sign a bill that will allow Internet providers in the USA sell the personal information of their customers to advertisers.

In March the Senate passed the measure with a party-line vote, and now that the rollback of the Federal Communications Commission rules have been approved by the House with a 215 to 205 vote, all that stands in the bill’s way is the president’s seal of approval – which the White House has already made clear will happen.

Repeal and do not replace

The Obama-era rules that will be repealed by the new law mandate that ISPs must ask users for opt-in consent before selling their sensitive information to advertisers.

“If the bill is signed into law, companies like Cox, Comcast, Time Warner, AT&T, and Verizon will have free rein to hijack your searches, sell your data, and hammer you with unwanted advertisements,” Electronic Frontier Foundation legislative counsel Ernesto Falcon wrote in a blog post.

Craig Aaron, president and CEO of the Free Press Action Fund, said in a statement that House Republicans “voted to take away the privacy rights of hundreds of millions of Americans just so a few giant companies could pad their already considerable profits.”

The reasons why ISPs want this is fairly obvious, they will make huge amounts more money, wanting to take a slice of the lucrative pie currently dominated by Facebook and Google. Online advertising is currently an $83 billion market.

Perhaps most troubling, the FCC, who originally drafted the protections, would be forbidden form issuing similar rules in the future.

“Today’s vote means that Americans will never be safe online from having their most personal details stealthily scrutinized and sold to the highest bidder,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.

Overreach

However, FCC chairman Ajit Pai – a Trump appointee who previously disapproved of the privacy rules when they were introduced last year – said that he believes the ISPs privacy policies are best regulated by the Federal Trade Commission, citing the classic Republican stance of “overreaching” by the FCC.

“Moving forward, I want the American people to know that the FCC will work with the FTC to ensure that consumers’ online privacy is protected through a consistent and comprehensive framework,” said Pai, who previously worked as a lawyer for Verizon.

“In my view, the best way to achieve that result would be to return jurisdiction over broadband providers’ privacy practices to the FTC, with its decades of experience and expertise in this area.”

There is fear from consumer advocates that Pai might also seek to roll back the agency’s rules on net neutrality – the policy which prevents ISPs from blocking access to websites or contents they don’t like, or charging websites a fee to reach consumers over faster Internet speeds.

Industry analysts said Tuesday that the FCC is also poised to deregulate the $40-billion-a-year industry for data connections used by hospitals, universities and ATMs

How you can protect yourself

Although some state governments are considering their options to protect consumer data, its possible for you to take the matter of online privacy into your own hands.

The easiest and most effective way is by using a Virtual Private Network (VPN). This is software that allows the user to mask their activities online by changing your IP address. The software won’t protect you from malicious hacking, but will offer some protection against surveillance and data collection.

In many countries, VPNs are used for everything from shielding users from government monitors to tricking Netflix into thinking you are in a different country.

Theoretically, you do not receive complete security from a VPN, the company themselves can protect your data only to collect the information themselves and sell it to others. Electronic Frontier Foundation civil liberties experts said earlier this month, “The only way to protect your privacy from your ISP is to pay for a VPN” — meaning you shouldn’t use freebie services.

If you’re interested in using a VPN to protect your online privacy, here are some options: