Comcast today said it has “no plans” to sell its customers’ individual Web browsing histories, but Comcast can still deliver personalized ads based on its customers’ browsing history. Comcast, the nation’s largest home Internet provider, said it will continue to offer customers a way to opt out of targeted ads.
“We do not sell our broadband customers’ individual Web browsing history,” Comcast Chief Privacy Officer Gerard Lewis wrote in a blog post today. “We did not do it before the FCC’s rules were adopted, and we have no plans to do so.”
According to the New York Post Comcast, AT&T and Verizon promised on Friday not to sell customers’ Web browsing histories — even though a Congressional resolution this week, soon to become law, would let them do just that.
So how do you protect yourself from Internet providers selling your browsing history? Here are a few tips.
Use a different ISP
Not all ISPs want to harvest their users’ data. In fact, a list of some of the smaller players – including Sonic, Cruzio Internet and Etheric Networks – wrote a letter opposing the repeal of the FCC’s privacy rules. The problem is, most Americans, particularly those in rural areas, have very little choice of broadband provider. About 80% are stuck with just one or two options, so even if they wanted to change, they couldn’t.
Without the privacy rules in place, ISPs can track and sell your browsing data by default, but should offer a way for users to opt out. However, they haven’t always been clear about how and when they’ve been tracking users.
Use a (paid) VPN
A VPN redirects your internet traffic to disguise where your computer, phone or other device is when it makes contact with websites. It also encrypts the information you send across the internet so that it’s unreadable to anyone who wants to intercept that traffic – including ISPs.
This creates a second layer to the problem: what if the VPNs choose to sell your real browsing behavior? Reputable VPNs won’t do this, but you need to be careful about which one you choose. Generally it’s wise to avoid the free ones – if you’re not paying for it, they must be making money out of you somehow. In 2015, the free VPN service Hola was revealed to be selling its users’ idle bandwidth to paying customers, including possible botnets. Cloak and TunnelBear are good options.
So why did Congress block the rules from being implemented?
Republicans bought into internet providers’ arguments that the rules discriminated against them and could confuse consumers. The rules would prevent internet providers from selling your web browsing history even though, the argument goes, websites like Google and Facebook would remain free to do the same thing. ISPs say that’s unfair and makes it hard for consumers to understand who gets to see their browsing data.
Internet providers want to pretend they’re just like Google and Facebook
But the argument is extremely misleading, if not outright wrong: Google and Facebook can’t see your web browsing history, they can only see what you click on while you’re on their own websites or on websites connected to their ad networks. Meanwhile, internet providers get to see a bit of nearly everything you do and visit; and even with the rules in place, they have every right to build the kind of ad-tracking websites that Google and Facebook have built. It’s just hard work, and they don’t want to do it.
The rules, if anything, put internet providers on a level playing field with companies like Facebook and Google. But Republicans don’t like that it creates more work for them. “These rules do little to enhance privacy but clearly add a layer of red tape on innovators and job creators,” Representative Greg Walden (R-OR), chair of the House’s commerce committee, said ahead of the vote. The rules, he said, “have the potential to stifle one of the most innovative sectors of our economy.”
In an added blow to privacy advocates, the FCC won’t be able to pass privacy restrictions protecting all web browsing history again, since the resolution prevents it.
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