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SALT LAKE CITY — The Republican-controlled Senate voted Thursday to roll back regulations that prohibited internet service providers from tracking and selling customers’ browsing history.
Abolishing these regulations would allow ISPs like Verizon, Comcast and AT&T to track what their customers search online and in apps and sell that information to advertisers. ISPs previously had to ask permission to collect private data.
With an influx of private data, however, agencies can more specifically target their advertisements to individuals, even if those people are searching in private mode (which blocks browsers from obtaining information). According to the New York Times, companies will be able to tell where people go to lunch, what illnesses they have and when they wake up, based solely on the information they receive from ISPs.
The measure passed in a 50-to-48 vote largely along party lines. ISPs and many Republicans contend that rolling back regulations will benefit the telecommunications and technology industry, while Democrats, advocacy groups and customers alike protest what they feel is a blatant attack on privacy.
The House is slated to hear the resolution Monday at 5 p.m. EST, but is expected to follow in the Senate’s footsteps. If the House passes the resolution, the last stop is President Donald Trump, who has the ability to veto the resolution if he sees fit.
"Lawmakers have said regulations should be created only when there is proof of harmful activity," the New York Times reported. "They also argue that the telecom industry competes with internet firms such as Facebook and Google for access to online content, so any rules should also include those companies."
Private Internet Access, a company that provides VPN tunnel services, took out a full-page ad in the New York Times which ran over the weekend. The ad listed the names of the 50 senators who voted to pass the resolution and called on citizens to contact their representatives to protest the resolution and “protect broadband privacy.”
We've been on the front lines since the beginning; it's your turn to fight with us: Call your House Rep to protect #BroadbandPrivacypic.twitter.com/2qpeN4wcNz — PIA VPN Service (@buyvpnservice) March 26, 2017
Utah Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee were both listed on the advertisement and voted to pass the resolution through the Senate.
If the resolution is signed by Trump, it will not go into effect until at least Dec. 4, 2017, according to Ars Technica, a technology news website.
Many customers are now wondering how they can still maintain privacy and avoid having their browsing history tracked and sold if the resolution passes. Browsing in private or "incognito" mode only works to hide internet searches from browsers, like Chrome. An ISP, however, will still have the information.
“In the simplest terms, (VPNs) create a secure, encrypted connection between your computer (or phone, tablet etc.) and a private server somewhere else, preventing anyone else from seeing or modifying that traffic,” the Verge reported. “When you browse the internet, data goes to the server, which passes it securely back to you. When you send data out, it appears to come from the server, not your computer.”
CNN Tech notes that it’s important to do research and read the fine print before investing in a VPN since some still sell browsing history to advertisers.
Most experts recommend avoiding free VPNs, since many may have security issues. Kenneth White, an internet security engineer and director of the Open Crypto Audit Project, suggested to CNN a VPN called Algo for the technically savvy, and one called Cloak for those who aren’t.
Otherwise, internet users may begin to see very specific advertisements, tailored just for them.