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Do ISPs Track and Sell Your Browsing Data?

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When looking for a VPN or looking at your privacy in a different way, you will quickly come across claims that your ISP is collecting and selling your data. But is that even the case? What are the rules governing what ISPs can and cannot do with your data?

Are you in the US or elsewhere?

Whether or not your data is sold depends largely on your location. For example, if you are in a country that is a member of the European Union, don̵

7;t worry. The General Data Protection Regulation explicitly prohibits your ISP from collecting, let alone selling, your data even without your explicit consent.

In fact, it is often illegal around the world for ISPs to collect data and sell it to third parties. Canada, for example, doesn’t allow it, and neither does Australia.

In the United States, however, things are very different. ISPs have been allowed to sell customer data to third parties since 2017, when Congress passed a resolution to scrap the FCC’s privacy rules that would have banned the practice. Where previously an ISP had to ask you before marketing your personal information and browsing history with a pen stroke, this need for consent was withdrawn.

Instead, ISPs are required to provide customers with an opt-out clause, which usually takes the form of a page on the ISP’s website, on which users must make it clear that they do not want their data to be sold. The default is yes, so to speak.

The fuss about this change was huge in the media, and VPNs (and VPN review sites) called them the best way to respond to this new intrusive legislation. In response, however, ISPs quickly pledged not to sell customer data and recorded those promises in their privacy policies.

After all, having the right to do something doesn’t mean you’ll do it, right?

Check the privacy policy of the US ISP

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Joshua Rainey Photography / Shutterstock.com

A tour of the privacy policies of all major Internet Service Providers in the United States shows that they all promise not to sell your information. However, some of the language used stands out a bit. For example, Comcast Xfinity promises not to sell that information identifies you. While that may just be the legal department covering their bets, it’s not quite the same as making a promise not to sell data.

AT&T uses much less vague language: in its privacy policy, the company makes it clear under “How We Collect Your Information” that it also collects information about you from third parties, including your credit report. We would have liked to know more details, but the company did not respond to our questions. AT&T pledges not to sell data, although the Electronic Frontier Foundation is begging for differences and has sued the company for selling location data.

However, T-Mobile has taken a different path this year, announcing that from April 2021 it will target customers of their mobile plans with ads based on their browsing habits. Customers can of course choose not to let T-Mobile sell their data by law, but it remains to be seen how many will.

The FTC’s 2019 investigation is ongoing

In 2019, probably concerned about the many reports it received of data sales and other privacy violations by the major ISPs, the Federal Trade Commission decided to open an investigation into these practices. It sent orders to Comcast, T-Mobile, Google Fiber, AT&T and Verizon, as well as the mobile arm of some of these companies.

We contacted some ISPs who have received orders and those who have confirmed that they have fulfilled the FTC order. However, the FTC has informed us in an email that it is still investigating the matter. The investigation has not yet yielded anything.

How to Protect Your Privacy

If you’re concerned about ISPs accessing and selling your data and you’re not in the US, chances are you don’t have to be. You may want to search the Internet for information about the laws and practices in your particular country. However, if you’re in the United States, you may want to keep an eye out.

Even if your ISP currently states in its privacy policy that it does not sell data, there really is nothing to prevent it from changing the policy and doing so – if it isn’t already.

Until Congress can be persuaded to change this, you can only log on to a virtual private network and prevent data from being collected by your ISP. However, a VPN is not a panacea: Despite what many VPN providers will tell you, you will also have to use incognito mode more often.

In short, with a VPN you can redirect your internet connection to its own servers, which are shielded from the gaze of your ISP (read our article on how VPNs work). Using one means that your ISP can see that you are connecting to a VPN, but not what you are using through the VPN. This means that, in theory, your browsing is private and there is no information for your ISP to take advantage of.

If that sounds good to you, check out ExpressVPN, our favorite VPN service – although, if you want lasting change, we recommend calling or emailing your DC representative.

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