Did you care about your privacy before you heard about Congress “killing privacy rules” and the sensational media coverage of it all? These Obama-era privacy rules weren’t even in effect yet — so the repeal (S.J. Res. 34) was completely irrelevant. Large corporations and government want your data, true. Despite outrage over Congress removing more internet privacy protections, you already had little to no online privacy and probably already willingly gave up much of your online privacy. The good news is there are 10 things you can do to increase your online privacy. Get informed, take charge.
The media loves to get ratings and that usually comes from sensationalism. Where was everyone over the last 15 years as online privacy concerns continued to grow? Why act suddenly concerned, if you didn’t care what was going on over the past few decades? The recent overturning of FCC rules that weren’t even in place is a good example of media manipulating a public that has no clue as to what the FCC rules contained, how it probably wasn’t even legal to begin with, and the other privacy laws in place to protect them. More importantly, a public that isn’t at an adequate technical literacy level isn’t aware of the privacy tools they should be using or settings they should immediately change on their computers, tablets, or smartphones.
If you never read the Terms of Service of your internet provider, the software you use, apps you install, or social media accounts you have, you probably have already given up all sorts of personal information – willingly. Also, if you don’t use encryption, secure transfer protocols, a firewall, antivirus software, turn off cookies, or use privacy mode in a browser like Firefox, the chances are even higher that you have already willingly given up much of your privacy. Further, operating systems like Windows 10 are known to turn on privacy leaking processes by default.
If you didn’t bother taking the time to learn about your privacy before using technology, you are partly to blame. We live in a technological age when everyone must have a baseline knowledge of technology and internet security. You shouldn’t suddenly be concerned about online privacy – as if it suddenly became an issue because of Democrats or Republicans.
Dishonest & Misleading News
If the news article you read didn’t provide you with a link to the FCC online privacy rules, known as “Protecting the Privacy of Customers of Broadband and Other Telecommunications Services,” then it was probably done to keep you from knowing what was in the rules, the fact that it wasn’t even in effect yet, and that it was completely irrelevant in the long-term. The fact is S.J. Res. 34 repealed an online privacy bill that wasn’t even in effect, was questionably enforceable/may not have been legal, and was basically irrelevant. Congress could have done (and should do) much better, namely replacing this flawed bill with stronger consumer privacy protections.
In our short attention span American culture, how many people bother reading something longer than 3 sentences? Here is a PDF file of the “Protecting the Privacy of Customers of Broadband and Other Telecommunications Services” rules from the FCC. The federal document is 73 pages long and full of technical terms that deal with internet subscriber communications.
Basically, these rules are extremely vague, weren’t in effect yet, could have been written better, and may be difficult to enforce without adequate oversight and service provider transparency. The Wiretap Act, state and federal laws, and corporate rules are still in effect, providing some level of privacy protection for consumers of internet services, regardless of this repeal of FCC online privacy rules. The repeal of this specific legislation isn’t the end of the world and it doesn’t suddenly mean there’s no more online privacy.
If we’re going to publish or broadcast sensational stories to the public and call for outrage, we should at least provide the public with the actual language of the bill so they can read it themselves. We should also inform the public about what they can do to increase their online privacy. Mostly, we should not be outraged about this and point out the plethora of ways people already willingly give up their online privacy. This is nothing new.
The FCC says it will continue to file lawsuits against providers that break consumer privacy regulations. Pursuant to section 201(b) of the Communications Act, unreasonable and unjust practices by broadband providers may still be subject to penalty and enforcement acts.
Consumer can contact Congress and demand they come up with something better to protect online privacy. There must be more specific, effective legislation that should focus on clearly defining online consumer privacy, how data may be collected and disseminated, penalties, enforcement, oversight, and public transparency. There must be independent unbiased oversight, not corporations policing themselves. Any legislation should be bipartisan and include input from the public.
This is not the end of the online privacy debate.
Secure Your Online Privacy (10 Steps)
Nothing is 100% secure when it comes to using the internet. However, you can do these 10 things to greatly increase your privacy and secure your information:
2. Go through all of your privacy settings in all of your email, social media, browsers, apps, and other accounts. You might be surprised by what you find, and it might take time, but you may have the ability to turn off various snooping and information sharing processes. Be sure to do things like turn off history, suggestions, location services (only enable when using GPS/maps/navigation), or remembering cookies and search habits. Opt-out of everything you can, especially if you’re given the option. Despite the repeal of FCC rules, many software vendors and service providers may still let you opt-out of sharing information.
3. Always use a firewall and antivirus on your computer. Be sure to check the settings in these programs as well – even antivirus companies share data. Do not participate in “community” sharing or “online threat assessments” because these share certain information from your computer to a third-party. A firewall can block information from getting to or leaving your computer. Antivirus software can block malware and viruses from stealing your personal information.
4. Use HTTPS or a VPN service. These transfer methods mean that the websites you visit cannot be seen by your internet service provider. This is becoming more popular, but is still not used as much as it should be.
5. Encrypt your instant messages, email, files, and operating system. Encryption is a must for anyone handling health, student, military, financial data, or even your own tax returns. Encryption hides the content of computers and communications. If your computer is stolen, everything is available to be sold, including tax returns, social security, driver’s license, and literally anything you had on your hard drive. Unfortunately, your physical computer doesn’t have to be taken away from your possession for this to take place, someone only needs access to your hard drive while it is connected to the internet. Beware: if you lose your encryption password, any data that you encrypted with it is lost forever – by design! No third-party can use what they cannot see. Use encryption.
7. Disable the audio search, history, and suggestion functions on smart television devices. These “services” share what you request and watch with third parties. You don’t need them to watch anything so they are unnecessary. Each television will differ in how you access the smart TV menu. Look for privacy settings, search suggestions, history, and other settings. Turn off anything you don’t absolutely need.
8. Use alternative search engines that tend to show more respect for your privacy, such as DuckDuckGo. Many private search engines respect your privacy by not logging any personal identifiable information – advertisers cannot track you. Also see: StartPage and Ixquick.
9. Do not post personal information to social media, reviews, forums, or any other online website. Search engine robots and data mining services look for this and may put together a profile about your buying habits, search history, credit, health, sexual identity, gender, favorite foods, friends, political ideas, religion, and location.
Consumer privacy starts with consumer education and action. You must take the steps to get informed and do what you can to prevent your data from even being available to be sold, leaked, or otherwise distributed to a third-party. In general, there is always some privacy risk when using the internet, regardless of what measures you take. However, doing the things in this article will greatly increase your online privacy as well as secure your personal information. Be smart, think smart, keep up with science and tech, and you will be prepared for challenges like these.
Online privacy should be an important priority for Congress, but they can do better than S.J. Res. 34 and the people should demand that they replace it with something better as soon as possible.
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