News fatigue in 2017 has been very real. It’s hard to keep track of the latest scandal, international humanitarian crisis, or crappy thing the government has done.
So since it’s the holidays, here’s a little gift from Motherboard: a friendly reminder that repealing net neutrality wasn’t the only thing the government did this year to bring us closer to an internet dystopia. Republicans in Congress also made it legal again for internet service providers to collect your personal data and sell it to advertisers—without telling you a thing.
Under President Barack Obama, the Federal Communications Commission approved a slate of sweeping privacy regulations that would have required ISPs to gain explicit consent from customers before sharing or selling their user data, including browsing history, social security numbers, and mobile location. This data is highly valuable to advertisers for providing targeted ads online, but would mean a wider array of companies would have access to some of your most private online information.
These rules were supposed to go into effect at the end of this year, but in the spring House Republicans introduced a bill under the Congressional Review Act to kill the FCC’s new rules, and it passed—and was signed into law by President Donald Trump.
This happened back in March, so it’s easy to have forgotten in the midst of the anxiety about net neutrality, but this is just as important a political decision, and is likely already impacting the way ISPs are using your data (hard to say though since, you know, they don’t have to tell us). As long as the companies aren’t doing anything to violate their own privacy policies, they have free reign over their customers’ information, which they can sell to the highest bidder.
It’s like that time Target used consumer data to figure out a teen girl was pregnant before her father even knew, only instead of one company that users can theoretically avoid—Target—it’s basically every ISP. And as I’ve reported previously, hundreds of thousands of Americans only have one option when it comes to ISP.
The good news is, unlike net neutrality being repealed, there are actions you can take to protect yourself in the meantime. Using a Virtual Private Network or VPN is probably the simplest solution to protecting your online data in the meantime. But don’t get too complicit, this is also a topic that privacy advocates can’t stop beating the drum on.