Congress votes to repeal online privacy protection

- What you do on your personal computer isn't so personal anymore. Both houses of Congress have voted to repeal online privacy protections adopted last year by the Federal Communications Commission.

The protections were aimed at preventing your internet service provider from selling things like your web history without your permission.

Think back to your last Google search. Was it an embarrassing health question? A not-safe-for-work website? Maybe just a mac and cheese recipe?

"Looking for some itching medicine for my dog, Wrinkles." said Debra Stanton, as she held her dog on a leash.

Your provider, perhaps Frontier or Spectrum, has data on the websites you view, apps you use and your geo-location. With the repeal, any business could pay for that data to learn more about you, what you're searching for, and where you go -- whether you agree to it or not.

"Just to see what I'm doing? I don't think it's any of their business," Stanton said.

The FCC passed the rules in October under the Obama administration. However, they hadn't yet gone into effect.

Democratic Rep. Michael Capuano of Massachusetts, who supports the rules, asked members of Congress: What are you thinking?

"Just last week, I bought underwear on the internet. Why should you know what size I take or the color?" Capuano asked.

Lawmakers against the rules argued that they unfairly put strict standards on internet service providers, and not websites like Google or Facebook, which already collect your data for targeted advertising.

"In reality, the FCC's rules arbitrarily treat ISPs differently from the rest of the internet," said Republican Rep. Leonard Lance of New Jersey.

President Donald Trump is expected to sign the bill. But, it's a move that has some tech experts concerned.

"Internet privacy as a rule now is kind of going out the window," said Elias Leslie, director of IT and security at Network People in Clearwater. "It used to be that you could inherently believe you would be secure. People weren't going to sell your data as easily. Now, it's a lot easier with this new rule being banished."

Shopping habits are one thing, but Leslie notes that the sale of much more personal information could have greater consequences than targeted ads.
"You can also glean from a lot of other private information such as what was I researching from a medical  standpoint?" Leslie said. "Was I looking into certain types of cancer? Maybe they say oh, this person might be at high risk now. We don't want to give him insurance."

Michael Defelice mainly scours the internet for his business, The Haus Coffee Shop in Largo. "All coffee equipment, really," Defeliece said. "It was nice to know it was private in case it was more sensitive things that I was looking up."

The repeal leaves him feeling a bit taken advantage of. "I didn't have an option," Defelice continued. "I had no choice in the matter and that's a little unsettling."

What can you do to protect your internet activity? Leslie suggests changing your browser to "in-private browsing" to prevent the tracking of cookies. You can also download a VPN or "virtual private network." It comes at a cost, but a good one will encrypt your data and keep it private.

After Tuesday's vote, Google searches in the United States for "VPN" spiked.

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