Thanks to the US Congress, a person’s Internet Service Provider (ISP) can use their browsing data pretty much without restriction. Some states, like Minnesota, are stepping up to do what’s right by their citizens — but your state might not follow suit. So how do you become a “Least Valuable Product?”
What’s the deal?
ISP’s want to take a chunck of targeted online advertising away from companies like Google. Indeed, they’ve already got programs like this in place, but a series Obama-era protections were due to go into effect later this year which would have place restrictions on what an ISP can do with their user’s data. Thanks to Congress, not only have those restrictions been wiped out, the FCC is barred from creating any such restrictions in the future. The rules which have been abolished also required ISP’s to provide protections from hackers on the data they do collect.
While online tracking has been going on for decades, Internet users have previously been able to choose to avoid sites which didn’t take their privacy seriously. This ability to stop using offending sites has had real impact on the Internet landscape. As recently as last year, several high-profile hacks of Yahoo! actually lowered the value of the company by a significant margin.
ISP’s, on the other hand, are often de-facto monopolies. Users have only one option for home Broadband, such as in much of “Comcast Country” around Greater Philadelphia. Without competition, Comcast can change their privacy rules at will without needing to worry about much fallout. Also, while services which collect data track what people do on particular sites, ISP’s are able to track every moment you are online. Given how much of life is done online at this point, Congress has voted to remove any semblance of privacy for US Citizens.
Least Valuable Product
There is a saying on the Internet, “If you get something for free you are not the customer, you are the product.” Google, Facebook, and the like use your usage history to sell ads and generate revenue. In return, you get access to their services.
ISP’s, however, may now treat you as both the customer and the product — even though you’re paying for access to the service. Thanks to Congress, you now have no legal recourse if your ISP wants to monetize your Internet usage history.
Without this legal recourse, or the ability to switch to a different provider which takes user privacy seriously, every moment you are online you are simply a product sold to the highest bidder. The goal for Internet users should now be to become the Least Valuable Product possible – to become so useless to those who want to monetize browsing habits it becomes a financial drain instead of a cash cow.
Becoming a Least Valuable Product
There are several steps you can do to make yourself a Least Valuable Product to ISP’s.
Purchase a VPN subscription
A virtual private network (VPN) connects your device to a remote server via an encrypted connection, through which all Internet traffic is moved. It’s always been a good idea to have access to a VPN, particularly if one uses public access points at coffee shops and other free access locations. Without this connection, people attached to the same network are able to spy on your Internet traffic 1. With the recent actions of Congress, however, a VPN becomes even more valuable. When connected to a VPN the ISP cannot see what sites you are visiting. Your browsing history becomes useless. In this new world, running a VPN is a good idea whenever you are connected to the Internet 2.
One problem with a VPN, however, is you can’t use most streaming services while connected to one. The Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon apps on iOS 3 will all fail to work — as will the MLB.tv app.
Many ISP actually allow users to opt out of their targeted ad programs. While this voluntary practice may not be around for long, given the current political climate, it’s still a good thing to tell your ISP you want no part of being their advertising cash-cow. Each ISP has a different way to do this, but Comcast’s opt-out feature can be found here. It’s a “conveniently” tiny link, found in the footer of their home page 4.
Also, remember, your mobile phone network is also an ISP. Make sure you opt-out of tracking for every device you have on a mobile network.
Call your representatives
Be sure to call your State and Federal representatives in congress and tell them you want your Internet privacy protected from ISP data mining. If the Federal government doesn’t care about its citizens perhaps, as Minnesota showed, State governments will fill this void.
This afternoon I was joking with a friend that I’d love to see someone create a setup which would create browsing data so useless it would ruin an ISP’s data mining efforts 5. I envisioned a Raspberry Pi Zero being configured to make new connections to sites like the original hamster dance every few seconds. He quickly shifted to setting up an idle computer to flood the net with nonsense searches.
Well it turns out someone else had this idea. An “internet noise” browsing tool which sends random searches through a browser. I’d love to set something like this up on a low-power computer, run it 24/7, and then use a VPN on all my other devices.
- Though sites which use SSL encryption for their connections mitigate this issue somewhat, it’s still good idea to use a VPN while on a public access point. ↩
- That is, “always.” ↩
- And, presumably, Android. ↩
- And it’s grey text on a black background. Comcast sure looks they want you to find that. ↩
- And thanks, Melanie, for the idea of going proactive. ↩