Thanks to Republicans in Congress, your sensitive information will likely soon be up for sale. Here's how to protect it.
On Tuesday, in a narrow vote, Congress voted to officially eliminate online privacy rules passed by the Federal Communications Commission during President Obama's administration. The FCC's 2016 guidelines prevented internet service providers like AT&T, Comcast, Charter and Verizon from gathering private customer data and selling it to third parties.
This verdict is a win for telecommunications companies and a loss for privacy rights advocates — and for you. But if you're interested in preserving your online privacy, there are a handful of steps you can take to protect yourself.
1. Understand that "private browsing" isn't private — try this search engine instead
Think your browser's incognito mode will keep your information private? Not the case at all. While most of these "private browsing" settings promise not to save the sites you visit, your ISP can still see where you've been.
Sites like Google and Facebook are not mentioned in the FCC ruling — neither in last year's regulations nor in the recent repeal — so they can continue to gather user information.
Those looking for a search engine that won't track your activity should consider DuckDuckGo, which has Tor integration (more on that later) and robust privacy controls.
2. Use a VPN service
A virtual private network service, known as a VPN, can protect sensitive information from an internet provider. Essentially, it hides your internet activity — but not your location — from ISPs.
The downside? VPNs can be pricey. They can also result in slower browsing, and some sites, like Netflix, don't allow VPN access. This is far from a fail-proof solution, as Wired reported: VPN providers can also track and sell your data, just like an ISP — so it's important to pick a trustworthy one.
Check out CNet's rundown of the best VPN services for 2017.
3. Use a Tor browser
A Tor browser allows users to browse the internet anonymously by encrypting all browsing activity and routing traffic through different browsers around the globe. While your ISP will know you're using this free open-source tool, it won't know what sites you're visiting — even if the sites are not encrypted. Tor isn't difficult to set up, but it does require an extra step to take, and it can slow down your connection speed on some sites. Also, some Tor servers are malicious, so read up on what to use.
4. Visit encrypted sites only
Websites starting with HTTPS (as opposed to HTTP) are encrypted. This means an ISP won't have as much information about what you do within the site or the data you provide in registrations and logins — the keywords there being "as much." Visiting encrypted sites won't make you invisible, as your ISP will still know what domains you visited, but what sub-pages you visit within a given domain and what personal information you provide will remain private.
5. Talk to your provider
CNet reports that consumers can try to "opt out" of having their data collected by their ISP — although broadband providers are not going to make it a simple process. To be sure, call up your ISP to see if it's collecting and selling anonymous profiles of customers.
Correction: March 29, 2017
A previous version of this article misstated the status of the legislation that will allow the sale of internet users' browsing data. That legislation has passed the Senate and House of Representatives, but awaits presidential signature before going into effect.