This week, Congress voted to repeal internet privacy regulations established by the Obama administration. The outrage was swift and severe. And rightfully so; it's difficult to see how this benefits the average citizen at all. It also seems pretty clear that the ISPs were lining the campaign chests of Republican representatives to make it happen.
What they've done is make it so you have to buy back your privacy. I blogged about this back in 2010, although I predicted it would be Facebook who would create the Privacy Marketplace. I should have seen that it would move further upstream to the ISPs. I mean, it makes sense... Your ISP knows everything you've been up to (including Facebook activity), so that's where the most valuable data is going to be. What Congress did this week was essentially grant ownership of that data... YOUR data... to your ISP.
AT&T used to offer a plan at a reduced cost if the user opted to allow their data to be used. Now, they don't need to. Congress has given them the right to use your data without your permission. Now, they can charge you to keep your data private. To me, this seems tantamount to renting a hotel room and when you get there, they tell you that it will be extra to get drapes and a door.
A more productive structure would be to establish personal ownership of browsing data and make it so providers have to buy access to it. It only makes sense that you own the digital exhaust that you create. If that's worth something to someone, there should be a fair market value for that data - and you should be compensated for it.
What you can do about it
You could use something like the Tor Browser or DuckDuckGo for searching and this keeps your activity somewhat more private, but your ISP knows every site you hit as well as any URL encoded parameters you pass (like a Google search query for "kittens": https://www.google.com/q=kittens, and the DuckDuckGo equivalent: https://duckduckgo.com/?q=kittens). DuckDuckGo won't track you or sell your data to marketers, but your ISP will have that URL to know you searched for kittens and market Fancy Feast to you. Tor is a bit better in that it does quite a bit to obfuscate your activity, but your ISP could still track the initial traffic through the cable modem in your house.
Until (and unless) Congress puts protections back in place to make your data your own, your best bet to keep your activity private by setting up your own VPN. That way, your ISP will only see traffic to one URL. Beyond that, your VPN will control your internet traffic beyond the prying eyes (and sales departments) of your ISP. It might seem intimidating, but if you follow the directions it's actually pretty straightforward to accomplish.
The biggest thing we can do about it is to keep up the pressure on our legislators and let them know that we don't approve. No matter your political affiliation, there are ways to find your Representatives, and Senators, like this one. Make sure to call them to say that you're not in favor of the government granting ownership of your data to the ISPs.
If we don't fight to keep our privacy, the financial interests will certainly take it.