Technology First Look

With Obama-era internet privacy rules in GOP crosshairs, VPNs get another look

Virtual private networks (VPNs) give users the ability to browse the internet privately, without allowing internet service providers to access their browsing history.

The Federal Communications Commission building in Washington, June 19, 2015. Republicans in the House have followed the Senate in overturning an Obama-era broadband privacy regulation that set tough restrictions on what companies like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T could do with customers’ personal information.
Andrew Harnik/AP/File
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On Tuesday, the Republican-led House voted 215-205 to repeal rules adopted last year by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under the Obama administration that required internet service providers to obtain consumer consent before using their data for advertising or marketing purposes. Many critics voiced criticism of the repeal, which had already passed the Senate last week, due to privacy concerns.

For many who want to keep their web surfing private, the repeal has generated renewed interest in virtual private networks, or VPNs, as a way to hide their browsing history and personal information from prying corporate eyes.

"Time to start using a VPN at home," Vijaya Gadde‏, general counsel of Twitter, wrote in a tweet on Tuesday. Twitter later clarified Ms. Gadde was commenting in a personal and not official capacity. 

VPNs make an encrypted connection to a private server which can then search the internet on the customer's behalf without revealing address destinations to broadband providers. These networks are often used to connect to a secure business network and are also used in countries with internet censorship such as China and Turkey in order to access restricted sites.

Supporters of the recent repeal said that the FCC unfairly required service providers to do more to protect consumer privacy than websites like Google or Facebook. But critics worry that by eliminating internet privacy rules, providers could easily gain access to significant pieces of information about consumers, including financial information and health data. As The Christian Science Monitor's Jack Detsch reported in February:

Some privacy advocates worry that the stay of the rules could move the US further away from developing a robust regime of digital privacy rights for consumers. In contrast, the European Union's data protection reforms put into effect last year articulate individual rights to accessing, transferring and a "right to be forgotten" – ensuring that companies such as Google and Facebook can't retain data without the consumer's permission. 

"The US does not have a comprehensive data privacy law or regime that protects consumers across the internet ecosystem," said Natasha Duarte, a fellow at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington-based technology policy think tank. "That would be the ideal that we would have one robust comprehensible standard that consumers would be able to control what happens to their data, whether it’s [internet service providers] or Google."....

What's more, there appears to be little movement on an Obama-era push for a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights that would have given Americans greater ability to see and control which companies collected their data, an effort that seemed to slow in the latter part of the last administration.

The repeal of the privacy regulations has critics worried that anyone who wants to keep their browsing history away from their broadband providers would have to use a VPN, which could be a complicated or expensive solution for some web-surfers.

"The further along toward being a computer scientist you have to be to use a VPN, the smaller a portion of the population we're talking about that can use it," said Ernesto Falcon, a legislative counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which opposed the bill, according to Reuters.

Another potential problem is VPNs funnel all user traffic through a single point, which can make them a tempting target for hackers looking to collect valuable user data en masse.

There are some options available that are free and more user-friendly, however. Last year, for example, the browser Opera began running a free, built-in VPN service in response to the increasing demand for private browsing. Smaller service providers such as Sonic, a California-based company, have also begun to offer free VPNs as a selling point, allowing customers to connect to the internet away from home while keeping their information private.

"We see VPN as being important for our customers when they're not on our network. They can take it with them on the road," Sonic chief executive officer Dane Jasper told Reuters.

This article contains material from Reuters.

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