In October 2016, the US Federal Communications Commission passed privacy rules banning sales of customer browser histories to advertisers. The measure was meant to take effect in 2017. Then you-know-what happened.
Don’t look now, your internet service provider is watching you. And has been for years. Recently Congress repealed rulings that would have rescinded the rights of internet service providers to store or sell your browsing history, willy-nilly.
Author of the ban on the ban and US Senator Jeff Lake: ‘Congress needs to repeal these restrictions in order to provide balance to the internet ecosystem and provide certainty to consumers.’
Basically, if Google and Facebook are allowed, nay, encouraged by consumers, to do marketing stuff with your data, everybody should be able to keep doing it.
So they know what I’m looking at. What’s the big deal?
So far, ISPs have been decent, mostly. But how long can that possibly last?
For now, it’s not that big a deal. Unless you don’t care about sharing personal medical information. Unless, say, a ginormous company you do business with gets hacked and your, ahem, private browsing history gets plastered all over the place. Unless employers can begin running browser checks on potential employees. Unless you hate freedom, privacy, and decency.
The Gorgon and the Likeness Monster are optional. If I wanted to, I could use Bing (heaven-help) or Firefox or Tor. I could lie to myself and pretend that Snapchat is ephemeral and screen shots don’t exist. I could pretend that clearing my browser deletes the data within the ISP. But I gotta have a phone, and I gotta have an internet provider.
Grab a pitchfork, we’re going to storm the castle.
Consumers aren’t entirely helpless. Here are some ways to protect your data.
- Surf only sites beginning with /https:/. Firefox, Android and Opera users can do this by installing HTTPS Everywhere, which resets default unencrypted pages to their more secure counterparts.
- Get a Virtual Proxy Network. This masks your identity by rerouting your traffic through other locations. There are plenty of free VPNs (with data limits) for those who use the internet to look up a recipe every now and then. For the rest of the world, there are plenty of for-pay services. But here’s the kicker: you have to make sure that the service you’re using to stay anonymous doesn’t store the very information it purports to obscure. Read the fine print.
- Try some wacky options that obfuscate your browser history. Internet Noise and TrackMeNot both run in the background, opening links from random websites every few seconds. AdNauseum clicks on every single ad on a page, a practice so anathema to Google that the browser banned it on Chrome.
No one’s sure whether burying your Grapefruit Diet search amongst taxidermy, flights to China, antique pipes, the meaning of the word ‘chthonic’ and 7 ways to get chocolate stains out of a shag carpet works, but if Google got nervous enough to ban AdNauseum, there may be something to obfuscation. In order to provide balance to the internet ecosystem and provide certainty to consumers.