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If Congress Kills FCC Privacy Rules, 'Little' Would Protect Consumers From Providers


Now we're going to take a few minutes to talk about a move in Congress that if adopted will continue to allow companies to share your browsing history on the web and even to sell that information without having to tell you. The Obama administration had put in place rules to make it more difficult for internet service providers to share your browsing and app activity without permission.

But last week, Republican senators moved to roll back those rules. The measure now heads to the House where it's also expected to be passed. Now, consumer privacy activists are up in arms about this, and we wanted to know why. So we called Jeremy Gillula with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. That's a group that advocates for protecting consumers' digital rights.

He's with us now from San Francisco. Welcome and thanks so much for joining us.

JEREMY GILLULA: My pleasure.

MARTIN: So right now if I order a latte from a certain company that we all know, if I shop online or reach out to folks on Facebook, what happens to my browsing activity and do I have any say in controlling any of that?

GILLULA: So right now that information would be collected by companies you'd expect, you know, Google, Facebook, ad networks, and they're going to see parts of it. You know, none of them is going to see the whole thing. When you're running - when you're on Facebook, Google doesn't see any of it. When you're searching on Google, Facebook doesn't see any of it. And there are things you can do to control that because that information is being collected by these web providers. You can block their tracking.

Actually, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, my organization, makes a browser extension you can install called Privacy Badger. And you install it, and you will just become invisible to their third-party tracking. So it's not a great scenario right now, but what the Republicans in Congress want to do is turn this sort of tracking up to 11 in a way that you couldn't even block it no matter what you tried to do.

MARTIN: How would that work if you could explain that in a way that a lay person could understand it?

GILLULA: So the big difference is who's going to be doing that tracking? Right now, as I said, it's companies like Google or Facebook. What Congress is trying to do is roll back the rules that keep your internet provider - so this is, you know, Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile - keep them from doing this sort of basically snooping on your browsing history. And the major difference here is that your internet provider sees everything.

Your internet provider sees when you go to Facebook, sees when you go to Google, sees when you buy something, sees when you order a latte. So it's really scary that all of this information could be collected and really abused in one place.

And the tricky issue is that the way Congress is trying to repeal these rules, it forbids the FCC from putting any similar rules in place in the future. And so it really is changing the status quo. It is essentially dismantling years of privacy protection that people have had in this country.

MARTIN: How can consumers protect themselves if they share this concern?

GILLULA: So the first thing to note is we think we can actually still stop this. It's now in the House of Representatives. The vote is going to happen this Tuesday two days from now, and we think if we melt the phone lines in Congress, we can kill this. Now, if it does pass, the ways to protect yourself are pretty limited and pretty cumbersome. You could start paying for a virtual private network service, a VPN, that could protect your information from your internet provider.

You could also use a tool called the Tor browser which is also a way of browsing anonymously online. It's not great at mainstream use, and that's part of why we're so concerned is because, you know, with Google or Facebook tracking we've got easy ways to combat that. With your internet provider tracking you, there's very little you can do.

MARTIN: That's Jeremy Gillula. He's with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. That's an advocacy group for consumer digital rights.

We also reached out for a response to cable providers like Verizon, Comcast and their trade group the Internet and Television Association, but we didn't hear back by the time our show aired. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered,where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
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