Is Online Privacy History?

Category: Privacy

Online privacy took a step backwards this week, as the U.S. Congress passed legislation that would block privacy rules recently adopted by the Fderal Communications Commission. Read on to find out who may be watching what you do online, how that information can be bought and sold, and what you can do to protect your privacy...

Is a VPN the Perfect Privacy Protection?

On March 28, 2017, U.S. lawmakers sent to President Trump’s desk a resolution that would nullify privacy rules adopted by the FCC in the late days of the Obama administration. The rules would have required ISPs to ask your permission before selling your browsing history to marketers. Even if President Trump does not sign the resolution, newly appointed FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has already said he will not enact the rules.

To be clear: those new FCC privacy rules never went into effect. Your ISP is free to sell your browsing history, and always has been. This brings up a related point. Some lawmakers opposed the FCC privacy rules because they applied ONLY to Internet Service Providers. Other online media giants such as Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft were for some reason not included.

The bottom line is this: You won’t get any privacy protection from the government for the foreseeable future. My hope is that this will be revisited by Congress and/or the FCC, but for now it’s up to you to do the best you can to protect your privacy.

Online Privacy - Rules, Tips and Tools

Some security experts say that a personal Virtual Private Network (VPN) provides the best protection against eavesdroppers and snoops. Let’s take a look and see. (First, if you wish, you review my primer, Personal VPNs for Anonymous Web Surfing.)

When you use a personal VPN, it appears to your ISP that you are connecting only to one server for all your web requests -- the VPN gateway server. Your ISP cannot see the URL or IP address of the site to which the VPN server connects you. You browsing history remains a secret. So far, so good.

But how do you know your VPN service provider is not selling your browsing history? How do you know they haven't been hacked, or that they won't be? Ultimately, the answer is, “you don’t,” but we can infer that VPN services that have been around a while and have good security practices, and have not been caught selling their users’ privacy. So ask in forums and on social media for referrals. Don’t believe ads, “ranking” sites, or Google search results.

More VPN Gotchas

Another problem is that you may not be able to connect to certains sites through a VPN. Netflix, for example, works hard to block VPN connections in order to prevent viewing of video content outside of its authorized regions. If you cannot reach a site, it’s hard to tell if the problem lies in misconfigured VPN software, a site that is down, or if the site has blocked your VPN connection.

Another potential problem with using a VPN is the WebRTC flaw, which can "leak" your actual IP address, even when using a VPN or proxy service. To mitigate this problem, browser addons for Chrome, Firefox and Opera can be installed. There is no fix for Internet Explorer, so I advise you to not use IE when connecting to a VPN.

Last, but not least, all VPNs cause your connection to slow down. You may have to try several VPN services before finding one that’s tolerably fast, never mind “high speed.” Free VPNs tend to be unreliable, and slower than the paid ones.

Other Privacy Options

One solution to the Internet privacy problem that I don't recommend is the "make noise" option. This involves using a browser extension that continuously opens random Google searches in new tabs. The idea is to "pollute" your browser history with so many keywords that your ISP won't be able to create an accurate dossier on you. Aside from the obvious inconvenience of all those tabs opening and closing on your screen, I see two problems with this. First, you'll quickly tire of doing this. Second, there's no guarantee it will help. Suppose one or more of those random searches turns out to be "aids cure" or something else that could be used against you?

Of course, there’s Tor, the open-source browser that masks your Internet use by routing your HTTP requests through multiple servers in the Tor network. However, Tor is notoriously complicated to set up, typically slows down your connection speed, and malicious Tor servers exist that may inject malware into the data stream coming your way.

Are You Worried?

"Well my phone is tapped and my lips are chapped from whispering through the fence, You know every move I make, or is that just coincidence?" -- Larry Norman, The Great American Novel. (1972)

You may not be concerned about your ISP or other online companies creating a profile of your online activities and selling it for advertising purposes. Personally, I don't see the need to run all my Internet usage through a VPN or Tor browser. If that helps to subsidize the cost of my Internet connection, or helps businesses like Google or Facebook provide free services that I find useful, then fine. If it helps advertisers to send me ads that are at least sometimes relevant to my wants, needs, or interests, that's better than seeing random ads. (I do oppose the use of ad blockers, because they destroy the "online ecosystem" that makes free sites like this one possible.)

Of course, you may have legitimate concerns about your online privacy, or just reject the notion of tracking and profiling on principle. If so, the tools listed here will help, but will not guarantee that all your online activities will remain private. Oh, and we haven't even touched the topic of how the government may be spying on everything we do online, and storing every last bit of our browsing, shopping, driving, gaming, emailing, texting and talking in a giant database somewhere.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Is Online Privacy History?"

(See all 25 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

31 Mar 2017

@Linda --- DuckDuckGo is an excellent search engine like Google, Bing & so on. It is not a browser.

What I do love about DuckDuckGo is there are no ads & you basically have all of the sites for what you want to research or read about. Yes, your privacy is taken in to consideration because there are NO ads.

Posted by:

31 Mar 2017

"late days of the Obama administration. ...
To be clear: those new FCC privacy rules never went into effect. Your ISP is free to sell your browsing history, and always has been. "
That was a scam to make it look like there was action.

To quote another internet blogger "99 percent of us are just not that interesting"

Posted by:

31 Mar 2017

Here is a probable scenario: our online surfing and searches; along with the social media sites we frequent and the video streams we watch are stored, filtered, and sold to employers, insurance companies, retailers, banks and online lending (currently estimated at 10%), and anyone else who wants the information. This will directly affect your income and expenses (such as insurance rates.)

Our children and grandchildren might be prevented from jobs, insurance, colleges, loans, ect. because of their surfing habits.

//Monitor those kids!//

In the meantime, this is estimated to give ISP's an extra $35 - 60 billion a year in revenue; not to mention the hackers. says it all: security is a myth.

There's gold in that information!

Posted by:

john silberman
31 Mar 2017

Bob, In addition to WebRTC leaking IPs, the DNS can leak as well. DNS leaks can be checked at Another good security check site is

Posted by:

31 Mar 2017

To quote another internet blogger "99 percent of us are just not that interesting"


So why does the Gov. spend so much time and money tracking and recording all of our online activities?

"Not THAT interesting" isn't the same as "Not interesting at all"

Google "create your own vpn" if you want true privacy.

Posted by:

31 Mar 2017

Remember that an ad blocker blocks poisoned ads as well as the "good" ones. I'm an IT guy for a 3-campus private school; the last 4 infections we had ALL came from poisoned advertising - and now we run an ad blocker. EVERYWHERE. (Same as I have long done at home.) Until website owners and legitimate advertisers develop a way to prevent drive-by / infected ads, the blocker stays in place.

Sorry, internet, but until you clean up your act I can't trust your "economic support" system.

Posted by:

31 Mar 2017

I use Ixquick. It does the same thing as duckduck. I never use google for a search on my phone or at home.
Bottom line, I think, is you can't assume privacy anywhere. Just varying degrees of collection. I have Tor and may try that for a while. F the man is my motto.

Posted by:

31 Mar 2017

Another highly informative article.
I understand your opposition to ad blockers, however, I find them truly indispensable.
It would be fine if ads merely trickled through here and there, but sadly, we are getting a tsunami of ads. Many are animated and too distracting to read the text on the web page they share.
As well, they make pages so slow to load.
This ad tsunami will eventually ruin the internet, if it hasn't already.

Posted by:

31 Mar 2017

Good article, Bob! But I have to disagree with you about ad blockers. As a blind guy with some residual sight, I do not want my screen cluttered with ads; as Al has said, a "tsunami" of ads just makes reading my screen more difficult for me. And if I were to use a screen reader (JAWS, Window Eyes, System Access, etc.), it would read the entire screen; I'd be unable to skip the ads. Hence Adblock is my friend.

The above sounds rather hypocritical, considering I used to teach marketing! If I were still teaching, I wonder how I'd address the issue to an introductory marketing class...

Posted by:

31 Mar 2017

Yet, when Manning, Assange and Snowden did to the government, what the government does to us, it's a totally different story.

Posted by:

01 Apr 2017

@Dick; if you use firefox or opera as your browser try the Reader View extension. It installs a clickable icon in the browser address bar. When clicked on it opens a web page showing only the pertinent text or pictures. And opens the page zoomed. Click it again to view the page normally. Prob'ly works with chrome browser too.

Posted by:

01 Apr 2017

The problem was being addressed by Obama, as well as net neutrality. Now Trump will set us back 20 years, at least. Still think there was no difference between the candidates? If you didn't vote for Hillary, you lost your right to complain.

Posted by:

01 Apr 2017

A good search engine is that send searches through google. The also have another sesrch site called there are a lot of tricks including hacks to stop WebRTC at

Posted by:

01 Apr 2017

I remember the old days with those dang banner ads that scrolled across your browser as you tried to read your mail. Yes I have Adblock Plus and have been using it for years. Websites like yours Bob I unblock because the ads here don't interfere with my reading your articles. There was one site I really liked and I turned off Adblock Plus and all kinds of moving ads and videos came up and actually caused my browser to hang; I don't go there anymore. This is the reason ad blockers were created... when sites became too greedy and placed a whole lot of ads on their pages. It's their own fault, not the user. I whitelisted your site and many others, but some I continue to block.

Posted by:

01 Apr 2017

The way i see it: If companies are allowed to sell our information then we should be receiving a royalty amount for each transaction. If they use my information then I should be paid for it. Better yet outlaw lobbyist so that government will have to listen to the consumer for a change.

Posted by:

01 Apr 2017

I've been using computers since they first came out for the home market, and my first online social site was Quantum Link. (Like MmeMoxie, I'm 73.) I have always considered the internet as one huge community billboard. I don't think 90% of what I do at all is of particular interest to others, but I assume that anything I do online might be viewed somehow by someone, much as the old "party" phone lines didn't guarantee privacy in a phone call. I love computers; I loved using them for business; I love using them for play; but I don't expect 100% privacy when I use them, and if I ever have something that important to keep private, I'll remember how to write and mail a letter. Since governments are composed of many individuals who are not very computer savvy, I wish they'd use their own encrypted intranets unlinked to the internet, registered mail, and trusted, vetted couriers (remember those?).

Posted by:

Granville Alley
02 Apr 2017

I guess the biggest problem I had (have) with the whole Obama last minute scheme to give further advantage to Google in particular for its collection of data is the picking of winners and losers. Nothing this rule did would actually improve any individuals privacy one iota while stomping a mud hole in Google's competition and allowing them to be even more predatory (and richer) than they already were.

Posted by:

05 Apr 2017

Those of you that use Ad Blockers, could you recommend some good ones? Thanks.

Posted by:

06 Apr 2017

Paid ISP's selling your browsing history is quite different than free search engines making money on targeted ads.That's the difference in this corporate sponsored bill.

Comcast, and other ISP's paid millions to get this passed. Find out how much your Representative received, and let them know your thoughts, and remember them when you vote.

Posted by:

08 Apr 2017

A good ad blocker is AdBlock Plus.

You can whitelist sites if you wish, or just block all the ads.

And if we want to help pay for Bob's brilliant site we can "buy him a snickers bar" ... see the link above these comments if you wish to do so.

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