SAN FRANCISCO — Congress on Tuesday moved to dismantle online privacy rules created during the Obama era. The rules, which were scheduled to take effect this year, would have required internet providers to get permission before collecting and selling a customer’s online information, including browsing activities.
What does this mean for your privacy and what can you do? Here’s what to know.
What online privacy rules did Congress overturn?
Congress voted to overturn rules created by the Federal Communications Commission in October that required broadband providers to get your permission before collecting private data on your online activities and offering it for sale to advertisers.
How does that affect my online privacy?
The truth is, you never had much online privacy.
The new F.C.C. rules had not taken effect, so you probably won’t notice any difference. Internet service providers have always been able to monitor network traffic, see what websites you visit and share some of that information with advertisers.
So is this 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.
How do broadband providers collect data on me in the first place?
These companies provide your connection to the internet. Your gadgets are each assigned an identifier, called an IP address, and an internet provider can see which IP addresses are being used on your account.
When you are browsing the web, the service provider helps route your device’s internet traffic to each destination website. In other words, internet providers can see which devices you use and which websites you visit and choose to retain that data.
What can I do to safeguard my online data?
Many privacy advocates say this a good time to consider investing in a virtual private network, or VPN. A VPN is 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.
However, a VPN isn’t a foolproof solution. A VPN service is also tied to a service provider, meaning a VPN provider could also share your information with the service provider if it wanted to, said Runa Sandvik, a director of information security for The New York Times.
Which VPN should I get?
Ms. Sandvik recommended two services she found trustworthy: Freedome by F-Secure and TunnelBear.
The Wirecutter, the product recommendations site owned by The New York Times, highlighted a service called Private Internet Access.
What else can help?
People who are concerned about their privacy might also consider using Tor, a type of software that helps internet users mask their online identities and whereabouts, Ms. Sandvik said.
Tor essentially encrypts your browsing activity and bounces a website request to multiple servers, decrypting layers of information about the request with every server “hop,” which makes it difficult to see from where and whom the original request came.
What are the downsides of VPN and Tor?
Some services might break: for example, Netflix blocks VPN users from accessing its content. And Tor often makes web browsing sluggish.
Ms. Sandvik recommended using a combination of the two whenever it feels necessary — like when you are accessing sensitive information related to your work, for instance.
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