Atlantans Seek Options After Internet Privacy Rules Repealed

Audio version of this story here.

Internet users in Atlanta are wondering what their options are after President Donald Trump recently signed a bill to repeal Internet privacy rules.

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For companies like ExpressVPN, which sell “virtual private network” or VPN services, it’s been a busy time.

“Particularly from the U.S., it’s been really crazy ever since the news of the privacy repeal broke, it’s been over 100 percent increase in both traffic and sales,” said David Lang, a spokesperson with ExpressVPN. “As far as traffic to the website, up over 100 percent in the Atlanta, Georgia area. It’s really been off the charts.”

Panama-based NordVPN said it has seen three times as much web traffic, because customers are worried about internet service providers tracking and selling their data.

“Similar jumps in inquiries happen around the world when repressive laws are put into order, such as the Investigatory Powers Bill in the UK,” said NordVPN spokesperson Jodi Myers. “We would like to remind users to always use a VPN as an online safety tool, not only when an anti-privacy law passes.”

A VPN is like your own internet network where no one can see or track what you’re doing. Some are free, others, like ExpressVPN, charge a monthly fee.

“While we don’t take any joy in the fact that there’s this new threat to privacy, we’re really excited that people are starting to become aware of threats to privacy and [asking]: ‘Should I trust my internet service provider and if I don’t, what are the options to be able to stop them in terms of being able to record or sell my data?” Lang said.

Metro Atlanta internet service providers, including Hotwire Communications, Comcast, and Windstream, said they don’t track or sell customer data and don’t have plans to.

But Lang said even if that’s their policy now, it could change and it depends on whether customers continue to trust their internet providers as federal regulations and fines change.

Federal agencies said the fear and response is unwarranted. The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission said most internet service providers have policies in place not to sell customer information.

The FCC said repealing the privacy rules is just a first step to establishing rules that it says are fairer for everyone on the internet.

“We hope that Congress and the other federal agencies can create a standard that applies equally to all of the internet,” said Jonathan Bullock, Vice President of Corporate Development & Government at Hotwire Communications.

Phil Ventimiglia, chief innovation officer at Georgia State University, said many companies and social media apps already track and sell your information. But with this, he said, there’s a perception of double dipping.

“When you have a company that you’re already paying for selling your information to provide ads is when people start to get a little more upset,” Ventimiglia said.

To work around this, he offered two pieces of advice: always use private browsing mode and sign up for a VPN service so you can’t be tracked.

AT&T and Verizon said they don’t sell user data to third parties, but you can opt-in and out to share your information in other ways.

Professor Humayun Zafar, who teaches cybersecurity at Kennesaw State University, said he sees how some companies in metro Atlanta may emphasize that they’re not selling your data as a competitive advantage.

“Because we don’t have too many ISPs in the game, it’s hard to come up with alternate choices,” Zafar said. “But if you happen to be in a place where you have numerous players then I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them used this as a marketing ploy.”

He said the repeal is problematic because internet service providers could technically sell sensitive information to entities like health insurance companies.

“We’re in that age now where data is a commodity,” Zafar said. “Commoditization of browsing data can potentially overlap with regulations such as HIPAA [The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] if things slip through the cracks. What happens if a user is browsing for sensitive medical information and the data somehow makes its way to an insurance provider through legal channels?”