Your Embarrassing Search History Is Up For Sale. Here’s How to Protect Your Privacy on the Internet

 

Last week, in the GOP’s continued efforts to reverse as many of President Obama’s policies as quickly as they can, Republicans voted to remove regulations that required internet service providers (a.k.a. ISPs) to seek your permission before selling your search history and data for marketing purposes.

Yeah. Pretty messed up. The details surrounding how, precisely, this will affect your privacy at large is still a little murky, even to former FCC employees and experts on the subject, but here’s a quick breakdown of what we know so far:

  • The Obama-era regulations were not yet being implemented when President Trump signed off on this last week; they were due to go into effect later this year. So, essentially, things will remain the way they are right now. But the public and consumer-rights advocates are pissed that these proposed protections are being stripped away (even Breitbart commenters were upset!)
     
  • Republicans and the big telecom players in support of this regulation removal claim that this put ISPs at an unfair disadvantage, because sites like Google and Facebook are not presently subjected to the same regulations and can sell your info pretty much willy nilly (hence the ads that show up creepily fast after you search for something). They also cite the fact that ISPs like Comcast and Charter, compared to the aforementioned sites, make up a small portion of web-data-driven marketing and sales.
     
  • Democrats and those that oppose the regulation rollback say that the approach should be to hold Facebook, Google and that ilk to a higher standard of consumer protection rather than lower the bar for everyone and leave consumers exposed without their permission. Testy arguments broke out in the House earlier today.
     

So what can we do about it? The first and most obvious option is to set yourself up with VPN. If, like me, you’ve been hearing people throw that acronym around the past week and you’re like, “OMG yes, VPNs. TOTES,” without actually knowing what they’re talking about because you were alive when MS-DOS was around and the Internet wasn’t yet, here’s a primer on what it is and what it’ll do for you:

  • VPN = virtual privacy network. It essentially sets up a “tunnel” around your browsing history, preventing the data from being siphoned to your ISP. Every device you use, whether it’s your laptop, cell phone or tablet, has an identifying number called an IP address, which your internet provider uses to track what you’re searching for from which device. VPNs connect your devices to their own servers rather than that of your internet provider.
     

  • Heads up, though: VPNs can slow down your internet speed. A New York Times journalist tested out a few different VPNs, and he saw download speeds drop from 50%-85%. Some streaming services like Netflix have protections against VPNs in place, too, so they may not be compatible with certain apps.
     

  • Especially in the wake of this recent rollback, the VPN marketplace can be daunting, and not all VPNs are created equal. A director of information security for the Times recommends Private Internet Access. Lifehacker has also crowdsourced a list of VPNs from users if you want some IRL advice.

The takeaway? VPNs are a good idea, though the most practical way to go about it is to only use your VPN when you’re on public wifi connections or are trying to keep your searches discreet. One more thing to keep in mind: sites with “sensitive material” often harbor aggressive adware, which you can’t circumvent with a VPN, so, y’know, heads up when you’re surfing the web on the DL.

-Deena Drewis