Tuesday’s congressional
vote to repeal U.S. restrictions on broadband providers
doesn’t mean that online privacy is dead. Consumers will just
have to pay for it.

The coming repeal, which President Trump is expected to sign
into law, paves a clearer path for broadband providers to sell
customers’ internet browsing history and other online data,
without their consent.

Privacy advocates are worried. Imagine corporate giants
snooping on your internet activities, and then bombarding your
PC, phone and TV with targeted ads.

However, the privacy rule rollback might have an opposite
effect too. Expect broadband providers and other internet
services to emerge offering online privacy protections — but
at a price.

“The cost for consumers wanting a private internet experience
is going to go up,” said Travis LeBlanc, a former enforcement
bureau chief with the Federal Communications Commission.  

To some degree, that’s already happening. Consumers worried
about the privacy rule rollback have been flocking to
VPN (Virtual Private Network) services, which can encrypt
an internet user’s online connection. This can prevent
broadband providers from learning what you’re browsing.

PureVPN has seen a “drastic increase in traffic,” said Mehmood
Hanif, brand strategist for the provider. In addition, U.S.
sales have increased by 37 percent in the last week. 

But the catch is that many VPNs aren’t free. They usually
require a subscription that costs about $10 a month. 

Privacy advocates like Ernesto Falcon, legal counsel at the
Electronic Frontier Foundation, also recommend subscribing to a
trusted VPN provider, but say the added fee amounts to a
“privacy tax” on consumers. Those who don’t pay face the
prospect of broadband providers harvesting their online data
and selling it to the highest bidder.

“Plenty of ISPs will push to extract rent and value from that
information the best way they can,” Falcon said. He cited a
recent case, where Verizon Wireless was
fined $1.35 million for inserting tracking cookies into
users’ internet browsing sessions.  

Magdalena
Petrova

The Federal Communications Commission building in Washington,
D.C., on December 19, 2016.

However, the U.S. broadband industry says that consumers
shouldn’t be worried about the privacy rule rollback. Earlier
this year, companies including AT&T, Comcast and Verizon

pledged to remain transparent over the data they collect
from consumers and how it’s used. FCC rules also require
broadband and telecom providers to take steps to protect
consumer data from hacking

“Their privacy is protected under existing FCC authority, which
requires companies to keep consumers’ data safe,” said
USTelecom, a trade association that represents broadband
providers.

But experts like LeBlanc say a more realistic possibility is
that some ISPs will offer privacy protections, in exchange for

higher fees, which AT&T once did.

“This may end up impacting lower income consumers, than upper
income consumers. There’s a digital equity issue here,” said
LeBlanc, who left the FCC earlier this year, and now works as a
partner at law firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner.

Unfortunately, not all U.S. consumers have much choice when it
comes to broadband providers, especially if they want faster
internet speeds, said Dane Jasper, CEO of Sonic, a small ISP
that serves California.

 “If you want 25 Mbps or more in performance, you often
only have
one choice,” he said. “I argue that we have a failed
competitive market.”

Nevertheless, customers who do have access to multiple ISPs
should look them up  and consider if they have a stronger
stance on data privacy over their current provider, Jasper
said. His own company is among the small ISPs who have been
against the U.S. Congressional effort to repeal the broadband
privacy regulations.

Consumers on a budget have some solace, though. The internet
already offers a level of free privacy protection. It comes in
the form of
HTTPS, a protocol that internet companies are using to
encrypt the data exchanged between a user’s browser and a
website.

That means broadband providers can spy on what websites you
visit, but not the content you view. Many top destinations such
as Google, Facebook, Twitter and banks have been using HTTPS.

However, the protocol probably won’t stop enterprising ISPs
from monetizing their customers’ data. “If I can see you are
going to Alcoholics Anonymous and exchanging a certain amount
of data there, I’ve learned something about you,” Jasper said.

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