Privacy and Internet Service Providers

Congress and the White House have recently acted to prevent certain privacy rules (FCC-16-148) from being implemented by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

What does this mean to you?

The FCC was ready to implement rules to restrict the information internet service providers (ISPs), such as Comcast and Verizon, could collect about their customers, including web browsing activity. ISPs are the companies that connect your home or business to the internet, and provide email and other services. The rules would have required the ISPs to allow consumers to opt out from having their information sold or shared with other businesses and organizations, and would have required them to notify customers when their privacy policy changed.

The ISPs felt they would be unfairly restrained by the new rules because other internet companies that aren’t regulated by the FCC are able to collect the same types of data, making the new rules anti-competitive.

ISPs occupy a unique position in the flow of data. They can see what web sites a user accesses and, if not encrypted, the data that a consumer types in as well. Consumers have to consider what this means. If you are visiting web sites to shop for a car, your ISP may notify its preferred car dealers of your interest. You may receive political advertising based on sites you visit, either to solicit support or to try to change your mind. An ISP might offer to alert insurance companies that a user is researching a health condition.

For now, some major ISPs have said that they will not share or sell the information they collect. However, this could change over time. ISPs may decide to use customer information for business purposes, sell to third parties, or even offer data privacy as a product that consumers could pay extra for.

What can a consumer do?

First, understanding the privacy policies of companies you conduct business with, especially ISPs, is a priority. Privacy statements should identify what types of information is collected, what the company will do with it, and whether or not you can opt out of information sharing. Remember that privacy policies can change. It is important to periodically check the privacy statements of the internet companies you use.

Secondly, there are technology options to protect your information. Some web browsers offer a private browsing option. This may prevent your ISP from collecting some of your data and are generally easy to use. However, even with private browsing your ISP will still be able to see the websites you visit.

Another option is to use a virtual private network (VPN). A VPN is like a tunnel between your computer and the web sites you access. Data inside the tunnel is not visible to your ISP and they cannot see where you are going. There are some things to carefully consider before choosing the VPN option. VPNs are not free, as they require purchasing a license or subscription. Some VPNs also require comfort working with technology to install and use. Finally, you have trust the VPN provider. After all, this company will see your data, and you will still need to understand their privacy policy. You should shop carefully and critically for a VPN before taking this step.

Be careful using “anonymous browsing” providers. Anonymous browsing is a service offered by some search providers. Your ISP will only be able to track you going to the provider. From there, all your online activity is shielded and cannot be traced back to you. While these can hide your online activity, many of these providers have bad reputations and are often used for illegal activities. Be careful who you associate with, even though your browsing is perfectly innocent. Also, remember that these providers now have your search history.

The best response consumers can take against privacy risks is knowledge. Read and understand privacy notices before you share information, demand businesses provide the security you want, and let the marketplace know your concerns with your wallet and where you choose to do business. Contact your government representatives and tell them where you stand on internet privacy and what you expect from legislation. Don’t look to technology to protect your information. Technology transfers risk from one form to another, and won’t protect you without cost. You can best protect your information by being informed.

April is Privacy Awareness Month. In recognition of that, Cambridge Trust Company will provide information and resources to help you protect your personal information.