Amidst news of online multiplayer games getting overhauls, new maps, and retail posters, something happened that could end up affecting anyone who regularly browses the web between Overwatch or Destiny matches. The United States Senate voted in favor of a resolution that, if the House of Representatives also votes in favor of it, could change how accessible your browsing data is to Internet Service Providers (ISPs), and whether those companies would need your permission to sell sensitive information to advertisers.
On March 23, 2017, the Senate voted 50-48 in favor of a resolution that would repeal a set of internet privacy rules that would have required ISPs like Comcast, Cox Communications, or CenturyLink to ask for users’ consent before selling those users’ browsing data to advertisers. The rules in question are not yet in place (they’re scheduled to take effect on December 4, 2017), but the resolution would effectively kill internet privacy regulations before they’ve had a chance to take effect.
The vote has to do with some recent changes to what the internet is in the eyes of the American government. In Februrary of 2015, The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reclassified ISPs as “common carriers,” which means they traffic in utilities. This effectively put the internet in the same category as telephones, water, gas, and other necessary components for living in terms of how it’s regulated. This allowed the FCC to enforce net neutrality laws, which force all ISPs to provide access to all kinds of content on the internet equally. (In the past, ISPs would slow down users’ traffic when visiting certain websites or sharing files to discourage them from engaging in these acts.)
Classifying the internet as a utility also meant ISPs had to follow the privacy guidelines previously written for telephones (and which the FCC updated with language specific to the internet in October of last year). The resolution the Senate voted in favor of on Thursday would effectively roll back many of these changes, allowing ISPs to do whatever they want with their users’ browsing data. The resolution is not yet in place, however; the House of Representatives should vote on the resolution next week. If they vote in favor of it, it will be sent to president Trump for approval.
How likely is it that this resolution becomes law?
The 50-48 vote in the Senate was mostly along party lines, with Republicans voting in favor and Democrats against. Republicans currently have a majority of the seats in the House of Representatives, making it likely the House will vote in favor of it. Trump appointed Ajit Pai, who has since come down hard against net neutrality laws, to lead the FCC, making it likely he will approve the bill should it reach his desk.
What does this mean for me?
Currently, ISPs can see what kinds of websites you visit (and, depending on the level of encryption of the website you visit, which pages you view on those websites). If you, say, like to browse Destiny fansites and subforums, they can use that to assume you’re into Destiny. If they see you shopping for Xbox accessories, they can use that to assume you have (or will be getting) an Xbox. They can then use those two bits of info to surmise you play Destiny on the Xbox, or plan to soon.
ISPs can then sell that information to advertisers the same way Google and Facebook do. Those advertisers can then serve up targeted ads, which you may be more likely to click on if they’re based on something you’re interested in. Right now, they can sell that information without you having a say, but the privacy rules which go into place later this year and which the resolution plans to repeal would force those ISPs to explicitly ask your permission for the right to sell that data. If the resolution passes, ISPs will be able to sell that information without your knowledge for the foreseeable future.
What can I do about it?
If you disagree with the resolution, you can contact your local representatives to inform them you don’t want them to vote for the resolution.
If the resolution does pass, there are ways you can browse the web more privately, but none of them are perfect. Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) can hide your information from your ISPs, but the VPN companies will see that information instead, and most require fees. Using proxy browsers like Tor obscures your browsing data to ISPs, but require more know-how than most users may be comfortable with.
Most people browsing the internet, however, may end up not knowing anything happened in the first place, and will continue browsing the internet as they have before. However, for anyone who regularly uses the internet (as most people who play video games do), it will be important to know just how much of your browsing data and habits companies will have access to in the coming months and, possibly, years.