Every Breath You Take, Every Click You Make

Drew Frantzenby Drew Frantzen

On April 4th, Congress made a ruling that was said to “open the floodgates” on who could buy/sell your internet data. Immediately, the masses were up in arms.

“Why would they do that?!,” they screamed. “My internet history? FOR SALE?! Shame!”

I’ll admit it – I bought into the hysteria myself. Not to the extent of throwing on a tin-foil hat and hopping into my deluxe bomb shelter … but a little bit. After all, there’s more than a little uncertainty in the air these days. But, I did my research, and I had a nice conversation with Marcus Cudd, director, search engine marketing, regarding the “landmark” ruling.

“All this ruling does is to level the playing field,” Marcus said. “It’s not as bad as it seems, which makes it worse, somehow.”

I’ll explain.

The ruling essentially allows internet service providers (ISPs – the organizations that enable you to access and use the internet) to collect and sell your internet browsing history, which would be outrageous … if companies like Google or Facebook or Amazon weren’t already doing the exact same thing. Feel better? Me, neither.

Ever notice that book you were eyeing on Amazon seems to be following you around to other sites as you browse? Amazon saw you do that, and is now retargeting you. It’s a pretty common practice across the board. In fact, companies pay a pretty penny to retarget you once you’ve left their site. That data? It’s being sold to them. And now, there are a lot more players in the game, selling your data at will. Feel dirty yet?

Now, there are a number of ISPs that have pledged to not sell your browsing history. But that assurance may not be enough for your business, clients or customers when they visit your site. What can you do? At the very least, it’s time for an SSL.

Ah, the SSL. The thing that takes your “http” and changes it to an “https.” The thing that gives you a nice little “lock” icon. Peace of mind, with one little letter. And it’s easy to implement. Most hosting services include something called a “Let’s Encrypt” certificate as part of your hosting package. Oh, and Google? Their almighty rankings look favorably upon that little “s.” ISPs that are now tracking your activity can only see the domain of an SSL-enabled site, not the pages you go to, or your form data.

For Altitude-hosted clients, we’ll be rolling out and/or updating SSLs over the next few months to offer that layer of security, and to ensure that the sites are up-to-snuff with Google standards.

But does that mean that Google can’t track and collect your data? Well … no. At least not if you’re using Google Analytics. And chances are, you’re using Google Analytics. And, by the nature of the beast, they are seeing all activity on your site. After all, that’s what you want, correct? Having that data from the user allows companies to get a proper handle on how their site is performing, what pages are getting hit the most, and how that factors into their overall web strategy. If you think about it in those terms, it feels more “symbiotic” than “icky.”

So, now that we’re all feeling uneasy about the relationship we all have with the web, what can you — as the user — do to protect yourself from the prying eyes of your ISP?

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are a great place to start, even if they don’t guarantee total anonymity. There are a ton of great VPN subscription services around, so do your homework. I’ve chosen NordVPN, because of the price, reviews and ease-of-use. Is it weird to think that I’m paying bills online from an IP in Norway? Sure, but the peace of mind more than makes up for it. Sköl, Norge!

Ultimately, Congress’ ruling confirmed what has been an inevitable fate for the internet: What was once a boundless frontier of free thought, free speech and cat photos has become a core utility, no different from cable TV, electricity or water. As more and more business, communication and finance take place on the web, naturally, regulation and corporate monetization has followed. Like it or not, it’s all part of the process, and it’s up to us to educate ourselves, and stay on top of best practices.

And if all else fails, there’s always the bomb shelter.