Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Selling Your Internet Browsing History


Congress last month repealed a set of regulations that would have put hefty restrictions on Internet service providers. So what do these companies know about us, and what can they do with that information? NPR tech reporter Alina Selyukh told us what the rules were and what the repeal means.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: The rules were meant to give people more control over the data that the Internet providers collect about them. Telecom and cable companies were supposed to start getting explicit consent from customers before selling some of the more sensitive information, things related to finances or health. And there were other requirements for increased transparency and security.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So they were going to have to get your actual consent before they could sell that information, right?

SELYUKH: The technical term was opt in.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So given that those rules won't be going into effect, does that mean, let's say, my Internet provider - say Comcast - can sell to an advertiser a package that says here's what Lulu Garcia-Navarro reads online and watches on TV?

SELYUKH: Well, so practically that's unlikely. You might have seen some stories of activists pouncing back against the lawmakers who repealed the rules. Folks were raising tons of money online, tens of thousands of dollars, to presumably buy the browsing history and other data about those lawmakers themselves - sort of you sold our privacy, well, we will buy yours. But that's not exactly how this market works. You can't go to Comcast and say, give me everything you've got on Senator Jeff Flake. And frankly, the advertisers don't really sit around and say, let's go after Lulu or Alina. They say, let's go after all women in a particular age group in the Washington area, and then, they buy ad targeting for individuals in that cohort.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK. So what data do Internet providers actually collect then?

SELYUKH: A lot of what they know, the advertisers can actually already get elsewhere. However, in aggregate, these companies do see a lot - what websites you visit, what links your click, maybe even connect to your profile across multiple devices.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sounds creepy.

SELYUKH: One important caveat to that is that encryption blocks out some of your activity. So if you see a secured link that starts with HTPPS (ph) - the S is the important part, not just HTPP (ph) but HTTPS - that means a third party should not see what you click or do on that page.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. Does this activity now go completely unregulated after Congress sort of blocked this legislation taking force?

SELYUKH: So since the privacy rule has been blocked, as, you say, a few things have happened. The companies themselves the Internet service providers, have gone on a campaign. They're reassuring users that they do offer opt-outs. Now, they're not opt-ins, but they're opt-outs. And also they say that they do not and will not sell people's individual browsing history. They might use this history but - to tailor ads - but they do not sell it to third parties. One thing that the angry customers have prompted is interest from lawmakers in a bunch of states - to name a few, Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota, I randomly picked a bunch of M's - these lawmakers are tackling Internet privacy laws. They're debating them on a state level.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So we may see a change soon. All right. Alina Selyukh, she reports on technology for NPR. Thanks so much.

SELYUKH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.