The Internet may seem like an apolitical entity, but the fact is, the United States government has a great deal of influence over it. On Thursday (Mar. 23), the U.S. Senate voted to overturn an important broadband privacy rule instituted, but not implemented, during the Obama administration. While the ruling is great news if you’re a huge telecom company, it may have more unfortunate ramifications if you’re an everyday user.
[UPDATED April 4: President Trump has signed this legislation into law.]
Just as it could before, your ISP will be able to collect and sell your online data with reckless abandon, and frankly, unless you're willing to kneecap your own Internet access, you can't do much about it.
Reuters covered the Senate’s vote on S.J.Res 34, which would technically determine whether the Federal Communications Commission or the Federal Trade Commission would regulate internet privacy at an individual level. Back in October 2016, the FCC passed a set of new rules that would have given users more control over how ISPs handle their data.
The rules were set to go into force later in 2017, but if S.J. Res 34 gets approved in the House of Representatives as well, and signed by President Trump, then the FCC's proposed changes may never come to pass.
What Can You Do?
In terms of protecting data, users have precious few options. The most obvious step is to contact your ISP to opt out of the service's customer-data-collection program. (The FCC's new rules would have made this choice an opt-in measure instead, meaning that ISPs couldn't sell this data without the customer's explicit consent.) It's often pretty hard to find where to opt out of this on most ISPs' websites; we suggest just calling customer service and bugging the support staff until they let you opt out.
You can always invest in a virtual private network (VPN), which encrypts all of your Internet traffic and routes it through a proxy IP address. This would prevent your ISP from seeing what you do, but it also could slow down your Internet connection speed significantly. We recently reviewed several free and paid services to name our best VPN picks.
Every single thing you do gets pinged between a whole bunch of servers, making simple tasks like streaming video or online gaming much less efficient. You could also use a privacy-focused service like Tor, or get a VPN router, but you’d be sacrificing a lot of convenience either way.
How Did This Happen?
Under the previous presidential administration, the FCC passed regulations that while ISPs can have access to your online data in a general sense, they would to obtain consent from users before acquiring — or, more importantly, sharing — details like browser history, location services, financial information, health inquiries, and so forth. S.J.Res 34 blocks these new regulations and allows telecom companies to gather whatever they want, and sell it to whomever they want, more or less without restriction — just as they can right now.
In case you’re wondering how on Earth the Senate could pass such an invasive measure, well, it gets political. Facebook and Google possess a ton of your data, but those companies are (generally) not broadband providers, and as such, aren’t subject to the same FCC rules as ISPs. As such, ISPs don’t have access to whatever data you share with Facebook and Google, and they feel entitled to their cut as well.
Facebook and Google are liberal-leaning companies; traditional cable companies lean conservative. Every Democrat in the Senate voted against the measure, whereas all but two Republicans voted for it. The ugly truth is that your privacy is being taken away as part of a partisan political struggle. If you don’t like it, you could take it up with your representatives during midterm elections.
(There is, however, another side to the story. Facebook and Google do have access to a lot of your data, and can buy, sell and manipulate it as they please. ISPs want to be accorded the same rights as the companies to which they provide access, which, as a legal argument, has some merit. In some cases, Facebook and Google even act as ISPs themselves, with Google Fiber in the United States and Facebook providing free Internet access in countries like Myanmar.)
Before you start building a bonfire for your electronics, keep in mind that the bill still has to pass muster in the House of Representatives before anything happens. Your data is safe, at least for the time being. But the House is also controlled by Republicans at the moment, and they may well follow the Senate’s lead. (The House could also oppose the bill, since many Republican congressmen are concerned with privacy.)
The FCC has vowed to protect consumer privacy, even without the provisions that the Obama administration put in place, so it may still find a way to keep your data safe. On the other hand, if recent history has shown us anything, it’s that when extremely powerful corporations wants something badly enough and the government is on their side, very few things can stand in their way.
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Marshall Honorof is a senior editor for Tom's Guide, overseeing the site's coverage of gaming hardware and software. He comes from a science writing background, having studied paleomammalogy, biological anthropology, and the history of science and technology. After hours, you can find him practicing taekwondo or doing deep dives on classic sci-fi.