Online privacy is particularly important to authors. Our Internet history is often a roadmap to our research: what we read, whom we talk to, what rocks we overturn and look under. Our e-mail and cloud storage accounts are valuable records of our thoughts, ideas, correspondence, and impressions.

That’s why we’re alarmed by Congress’ repeal of the FCC’s consumer privacy protections. The law, which followed earlier votes in the Senate and Congress, affects us not only as consumers and Internet users, but as authors who rely on a free, open, and safe Internet for our professional work.

What does the repeal of consumer privacy protections mean?
The repeal means that the phone and cable companies that merely connect you to the Internet will be allowed to spy on all your browsing and searching and other activity as the data flows through their pipes. And keep a record. And then sell that history to anyone—not just advertisers, but corporations, public figures, even governments.

The FCC rules that were repealed would have restricted broadband Internet access providers (such as Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon) from collecting and selling information like geo-location data, URL visits, search histories, and appdata without the user’s permission. This was a big leap forward for the protection of Internet users.

Instead, the repeal—at the behest of powerful telecommunication interests eager to gain access to the $83 billion market for consumer data—not only nullifies the rules, but also bars the FCC from enacting similar rules in the future. So broadband Internet access providers will now be able to record and even sell our data to advertisers without permission.

Some authors already have experience with intrusions on Internet privacy. James Fallows, author, most recently, of China Airborne, said on Twitter:

I used to think I needed my VPNs mainly when in China.

Now America has caught up!

Rev up your VPNs, and give thanks to the 52 GOP Sens

The fact that we use e-mail instead of pen and paper, cloud storage instead of filing cabinets, does not justify an invasion into our work process—though it certainly makes the invasion simpler. Authors and journalists should know that their Internet providers are free to record their online activity and sell that data to those who want it for their own purposes. It is crucial that we prevent this from affecting research practices and the creative process.

What you can do about it
Concerned authors should know that privacy tools such as Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are available to protect personal and professional data.

VPNs are a widely used and relatively simple method for protecting data from being tracked and stored. By routing a device’s connection through a secure VPN server and masking the device’s IP address with the VPN server’s IP address, VPNs create a safe tunnel between the device and the Internet, making it difficult for third parties to track online activity back to the VPN-engaged device. There are a number of free and paid VPN services available online. For more information on finding a VPN service and online privacy in general, please follow the links below.

  1. Quartz’s How-to for quickly setting up a VPN
  2. PC World’s guide to online privacy tools
  3. New York Times’ Q&A on online privacy
  4. NPR’s interview with Jules Polonetsky, privacy expert and CEO of the Future of Privacy Forum