Internet service providers will soon be able to sell information like what websites you visit to third-party advertisers, if all goes according to House Republicans' plan Tuesday. But not all is lost – or public.
Because the Senate last week approved this bill, and because the Republicans supporting the bill control both chambers of Congress, it is widely expected that this rollback of Obama-era privacy protections will be signed into law.
The reason that ISPs want to be allowed to collect and sell this data is fairly straightforward: They want to make more money. Facebook and Google, which together have a de facto duopoly on digital advertising dollars, already collect this sort of information and use it to help advertisers better target users. Internet providers want a slice of that pie.
Though state governments are considering maneuvers to protect customer data, there are other steps that privacy-minded internet users can take on their own to conceal their information.
The easiest way is a VPN – virtual private network – which is kind of software that allows the user to mask what they are doing online. It's not a protection against sustained, malicious hacking, but it can offer protection against mass surveillance and data collection. Outside the U.S., VPNs are commonly used to shield users from government monitors and to trick streaming services like Netflix into thinking that you're in a different country.
VPNs do not offer complete security, and you should be careful about which VPN you trust; theoretically, a VPN could protect your data, only to collect information itself and then sell to others. And, as Electronic Frontier Foundation civil liberties experts noted earlier this month, "the only way to protect your privacy from your ISP is to pay for a VPN" — meaning you shouldn't use freebie services.
If you're interested in using a VPN, here are a few strong options to look at:
- Hotspot Shield (Elite version): One of the most popular VPNs — and one of the more highly priced ones — parent company AnchorFree talks a big game about protecting users from government surveillance.
- IPVanish: Another popular, paid service that offers extensive support options including for mobile.
- NordVPN: A popular option that's generally cheaper than the competition.
- PrivateInternetAccess: Another cheaper, reliable option.