Future Tense

Worried About Your Online Privacy? Mozilla’s Executive Director Has Tips for You.

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Take control of your privacy now.

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For those of us who believe privacy is an essential part of a healthy internet, it’s been a bruising few weeks. Congress recently voted to overturn Federal Communications Commission rules that would have helped put people in control of how their internet service providers handle private data. As a result, Washington made the already-uncertain future of online privacy that much more bleak.

It’s a setback in a privacy fight that’s growing more and more challenging. The web today is largely an ecosystem where our personal information is currency. The “free” products and content we engage with everyday may not lighten our wallets, but there’s a steep cost: Our most intimate searches, clicks, and habits are tracked and transacted.

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Exchanging personal data for a service or app isn’t inherently bad. But too often, this system is broken. Users aren’t in control of how their data is being used: According to Pew, 91 percent of American adults say consumers have lost control of how personal information is collected and used by companies. And according to a recent survey from Mozilla, where I work as executive director, more than 90 percent of participants admitted they don’t know much about protecting themselves online.

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Meanwhile, the internet is expanding exponentially, threading its way through our cars and cities and appliances. The web today is where we flirt, gossip, commiserate, and plug tawdry questions into search bars. And there’s no shortage of companies who want to watch.

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All this is why last week’s news is so jarring. The FCC rules, had they not been dismantled, would have gone into effect later this year and offered some relief to those 91 percent of Americans in the Pew poll. But no longer.

The repeal should be a call to action. And not just to badger our lawmakers. It should be an impetus to take online privacy into our own hands.

The first step is privacy education. We teach typing skills at schools and we teach JavaScript, but what about the vast in-between? Like educating about the business models behind app stores, or how to manage browser settings, or how to manage passwords safely? VPN and PGP needn’t be intimidating words. (A VPN is a virtual private network, and PGP is pretty good privacy, an encryption program.)

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This education needs to come from a network of experts, civil society organizations and media who understand the value of a healthy internet. The good news: It’s starting to happen.

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Last week, the nonprofit and open-source community FreeCodeCamp explained VPNs in plain English and sounded off on the importance of HTTPS. Meanwhile, the Electronic Frontier Foundation is offering surveillance self-defense kits. They’re rich resources that detail everything from encrypting your iPhone to deleting personal data off Linux, Mac, and Window machines. At Mozilla, we’re demystifying online privacy in our Internet Health Report.

These education efforts go beyond tech organizations. Last month, Consumer Reports shared a playbook for choosing a secure messaging app, with input from security researchers and privacy activists. And after the congressional vote on the FCC rules, Vogue published a dispatch on encrypted messaging apps and VPNs.

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After education comes action—everyday internet users intentionally choosing tools that value privacy. This means selecting messaging apps where encryption is the default, like Signal and WhatsApp. And consider tools that block invasive online tracking and collection of your personal data, like Disconnect. Use Tor, the free software that routes internet traffic through a labyrinthine system of relays, allowing you to surf the web anonymously. And exercise what control you do have online by managing preferences for Google, Yahoo, and Facebook ads.

Congress’ repeal of these FCC rules leaves internet users in the lurch on privacy. But it can be fixed—at least partly—through education and individual action. The silver lining to the recent news in Washington? Online privacy is finally getting the attention it deserves.

For more on protecting your digital privacy, read Future Tense’s series on cybersecurity self-defense.

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