The US Congress voted last month to scrap the rules drawn up in the last days of Obama’s Federal Communication Commission (FCC), which would have forced internet service providers to keep their users’ browsing history private, and thus, protect people’s privacy.
This largely Republican move is a sign of a now openly business-friendly Washington that may soon give unhindered power to ISPs (broadband and cellular data providers) to heavily influence what consumers can see, hear and read, while their browsing history becomes a commodity to sell or give to advertisers, marketers and even to governments without any user feedback or knowledge.
When Congress decided to disregard privacy fears, it addressed solely the concerns voiced by large internet providers that claimed unfair disadvantage over the likes of Google and Facebook that can already profit from compiled user profiles and able to generate lucrative ad revenues. Of course, it is a patently false argument because a company that operates a site (or even a group of sites) or offers some sort of service, such as search or web-based application (like cloud storage or word processing), has clearly stated privacy rules and opt-ins that, in case the users don’t like, can be freely abandoned for another site or service. This is obviously not the case with the internet, considering the fact that 80 percent of rural areas in the U.S. now only have a single ISP.
Commissioner Ajit Pai, who now heads the FCC, has similarly monopoly-friendly attitude that favors largely deregulating what major media companies, like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon, can or cannot do while in the business of providing internet access. These companies in the past have been declared as utilities (similarly to water and power providers) precisely because in many places they are still the only ones with the infrastructure and ability to provide broadband service. If the designation of utility will be ignored by the FCC in the future, the subject of Net Neutrality will quickly come into play too.
Under the current rules, ISPs have to handle all web content the same way and aren’t allowed to give preferential treatment to one over the other. This is important to maintain free and open internet not just when users try to decide where to get the news or whose video streaming service to utilize. The even playing field also allows innovation to flourish when a new and better application or content provider tries to unseat a more established but inferior product or service. For example, if an ISP has an agreement with Spotify or Netflix to offer them extra bandwidth or faster internet while handling the new competitor with the rest of the web (or even throttling it to make it slower), then this startup will never have a chance to succeed. The same goes for any news outlet. If it takes Fox News or CNN five times longer to load a page than for its rival, sooner or later the majority of users will get their news from the site that is significantly faster.
The new business-friendly FCC has also indicated recently its intent to eliminate government subsidized Lifeline broadband service for low-income households in the U.S. This decision may put some extra profit in the pockets of internet providers, but it almost certainly takes away from many poorer Americans the chance to access the same services and information that others consider natural for studying, conducting daily business or socially engaging with their colleagues, friends, and families. Removing a segment of the population from internet access in today’s world is tantamount to banishing them from a layer of social structure that in the end makes the whole country poorer and less inclusive.
So what can average Americans do to protect their privacy and assure that the internet will remain free and open? The first and most obvious step to take is to contact their current ISPs and make sure to get an opt-out from sharing or marketing their browsing history. If there isn’t one offered, they should request one or change providers if there is another one available. People should also contact their local and congressional representatives and demand action to protect their privacy on the internet and neutral access to its content.
There are also somewhat more technical solutions one can deploy to assure anonymized browsing. Several fee-based virtual private networks (VPN) are now available that mask all internet browsing behind a protected layer and ultimately offer virtual privacy for the user. Another solution, Tor browsing, is even more technical, requires the installation of software and having some computer skills, but it provides efficient anonymity while surfing the net.
Of course, the latter steps will only protect one’s personal privacy while the collective action of the voting public and conscious consumers at large can easily amass the power to defend the entire internet for all Americans. Or as the nation’s founding motto succinctly says: E pluribus unum; out of many, one.