This week Congress passed legislation rolling back Obama-era online FCC privacy regulations that would have banned internet service providers (ISPs) from collecting and selling your browsing history.

Should you worry? How will your online experience change? Are there any steps you need to take to protect your privacy? Here are all the basics you need to know.

Technically, nothing has changed.

As TechCrunch points out, the elimination of the rules was passed quickly in order to remove them before they ever went into effect. That means you've never really had these protections in the first place, so you probably won't immediately notice much has changed. (If you want a real deep dive into the issue, the TC article has tons of details.)

But that doesn't mean the move by Congress won't have a significant longer-term impact. The New York Times and other experts insist this is still a big deal.

"The new F.C.C. rules would have given consumers stronger privacy protections -- without such restrictions, internet providers may decide to become more aggressive with data collection and retention. Expect more targeted advertising to come your way," predicts Brian X. Chen of the Times.

Weren't the eliminated rules just excess regulation? I heard other agencies handle the same stuff.

Yeah, that's what Congressional Republicans would have you believe, but not really. The Federal Trade Commission (so the FTC, not the FCC which would have administered the eliminated rules. It's easy to get lost in a thicket of acronyms here) does have authority to protect consumers' privacy generally, but a recent court decision actually found that ISPs explicitly aren't under the jurisdiction of the FTC.

That means, that "both the FCC and the FTC are now barred from making privacy rules for ISPs. There's no cop on the beat whatsoever!" warns an alarmed-sounding TechCrunch. The good(ish) news is that should the court decision preventing the FTC from regulating ISPs be reversed (a possibility), then that agency will be back on the case.

In the meantime, ISPs have free rein to experiment with more ways to sell your data and target the content you see.

What can I do to protect myself?

If that alarms you, there are steps you can take to greatly increase your privacy online. Chen at the Times suggests a VPN, which is basically "a tunnel that shields your browsing information from your internet service provider and allows you to appear as if you are in a different location," he explains.

Various experts have recommended Freedome by F-Secure, TunnelBear, and Private Internet Access. Be warned though that Netflix and a few other services won't work if you're using a VPN.

There is another, even simpler alternative too, according to Lifehacker's Thorin Klosowski. "Last year, Opera, the little browser that everyone seems to forget about, rolled out a free VPN. While it immediately ran into a security problem by leaking IP addresses, it's now been patched up, and is easily the simplest, cheapest, and more reasonably private way to access a VPN that will circumvent your ISP right now," he writes.

There are a bunch of technical caveats, which Klowowski runs through, but frankly they seem like they'd mostly be of interest to spies, advanced hackers, or at-rick dissidents (Opera is owned by a Chinese consortium), so this might be a choice for garden-variety privacy issues.

Are you concerned about Congress's decision to eliminate these privacy protections?

Published on: Mar 30, 2017
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