US broadband privacy rollback is hugely unpopular, study finds
By Paul Bischoff, Comparitech
Americans overwhelmingly believe internet service providers should not be allowed to collect and sell their browsing data to third parties without permission. But only about half even knew Congress passed a bill to give ISPs that very privilege, according to a recent study by tech services review site Comparitech.
Comparitech questioned about 1,200 Americans about their views on ISP snooping, just before the bill, Senate Joing Resolution 34, was signed into law by President Donald Trump. The law repeals an FCC rule from the Obama administration that prevented ISPs from selling their customers' browsing data--history, searches, purchases, emails, and more--to third parties without consent.
92 percent of respondents either strongly disagreed or somewhat disagreed with such a practice. But less than half even knew that the bill was set to undermine their right to privacy online in a matter of days.
The law, a victory for Republican lawmakers and their corporate ISP suborners, was overshadowed by the party's latest and greatest failure, an attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare. Mainstream news outlets and social media echo chambers largely turned their attention to the latter, allowing the joint resolution to quickly and quietly gain approval in both houses of Congress.
Had the public discourse shined a brighter light broadband privacy, the results might have been much different. After all, Comparitech's study shows that four in five respondents said they would be dissuaded from voting for their representative in the future if they supported the repeal. Alas, this is often the case with technology-related politics. It's complex and doesn't always fit snugly into news soundbites and Tweets.
Awareness versus apathy
That's not to say Americans are apathetic toward their privacy. When Comparitech asked people if they would allow their ISP to sell their browsing data in return for a half price bill, three out of four said they would refuse. About half said they would pay more to prevent their data from being sold, and three-fifths said they would pay for a VPN subscription. Comparitech noted a huge surge in VPN sales referrals from its website after the bill was passed in Congress.
This isn't an issue divided by age, either. While you might assume that older people care less about technology and the internet, the opposite is actually true. Senior citizens were actually most aware of S.J. Res 34, according to Comparitech, while those in the 18-24 demographic were by far the least aware. The youngest age group was also the least opposed to their ISP sacrificing their privacy for profit.
The fight ahead
Now the battle is lost, at least at a national level. A handful of states like California and Minnesota have privacy protections in place to combat ISP snooping. Websites can encrypt their pages with HTTPS to reign in ISP snooping and improve security overall. Individuals can use a VPN or Tor to mask their web traffic from prying eyes.
Even VPNs can be imperfect solutions, however. Choosing one that doesn't put your privacy at even greater risk requires a fair amount of research. Marketing ploys are often vague and sometimes downright deceitful. In reality, very few VPNs take every precaution necessary to ensure their users receive optimal privacy (hint: none of them are free). Comparitech has assessed over 20 VPN providers' security and privacy standards, but there are hundreds more looking to take advantage of novice users who just want to unblock a website or add a layer of privacy.
Make no mistake: ISPs are the only winners. They and the legislators they so gratuitously bribe, anyway. Even though 80 percent of those questioned said they would switch to a new internet provider if their current one sold their data, 70 percent said they don't think they have enough other options to choose from. This is because ISPs in the US often hold regional monopolies or duopolies.
The culprit for all of this comes down to money in politics and the legal system. Large American ISPs sold their customer's privacy so they can make a bit of extra cash. They have achieved the ultimate hat trick: sell us an overpriced service, sell advertisements that are injected into that service, and collect and sell the private data gleaned from our use of that service to third parties. These corporations also make it extremely difficult for new players to enter the market. They saddle upstart ISPs with frivolous lawsuits, undercut their smaller competition until they go out of business, and lobby, lobby, lobby.
But we can fight back. Opt out of your internet provider's advertising programs whenever possible to rob them of profits (note: this won't stop them from selling your data to third parties). Use a VPN or Tor to mask your web traffic so they can't capitalize on it. Support local and municipal ISPs and vote for legislative measures to protect privacy at state and local levels. If you run a website, get a valid HTTPS certificate. We've suffered a major setback, but the war isn't over yet.