SAN FRANCISCO – A decision by Congress on Tuesday to repeal rules limiting how internet service providers can use customer data has generated renewed interest in the internet technology of virtual private networks (VPNs).
VPNs cloak a person’s web-surfing history by making an encrypted connection to a private server that does not reveal the person’s address. VPNs are often used to connect to a secure business network or to bypass government restrictions on web surfing in countries such as China and Turkey.
Privacy-conscious techies are now talking of using VPNs as a matter of course to guard against broadband providers collecting data on the sites and services they use.
“Time to start using a VPN at home,” Vijaya Gadde, general counsel of Twitter, said in a tweet on Tuesday that was retweeted by Twitter Chief Executive Jack Dorsey. Gadde was not immediately available for comment; Twitter said she was commenting in her personal capacity and not on behalf of the company.
The U.S. House of Representatives voted 215-205 on Tuesday to repeal rules adopted last year by the Federal Communications Commission under then-President Barack Obama to require broadband providers to obtain consumer consent before using their data for advertising or marketing.
The U.S. Senate voted 50-48 last week to reverse the rules. The White House said President Donald Trump supported the repeal measure.
Supporters of the repeal said the FCC unfairly required internet service providers like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon to do more to protect customers’ privacy than websites like Google or Facebook.
Critics said the repeal would weaken consumers’ privacy protections.
Protected data include a customer’s web-browsing history, which can be used to discover other types of information, including health and financial data.
Some smaller broadband providers are now seizing on privacy as a competitive advantage. Sonic, a California-based broadband provider, offers a free VPN service to its customers so they can connect to its network when they are not home. That ensures that when Sonic users log on to Wi-Fi at a coffee shop or hotel, for example, their data are not collected by that establishment’s broadband provider.
“We see VPN as being important for our customers when they’re not on our network. They can take it with them on the road,” CEO Dane Jasper said.
In many areas of the country, there is no option to choose an independent broadband provider, and consumers will have to pay for a VPN service to shield their browsing habits.
One VPN provider, Private Internet Access, took a visible stand against the repeal measure when it bought a full-page ad in the New York Times on Sunday. Yet the company, which boasts about a million subscribers, potentially stands to benefit from the legislation, acknowledged marketing director Caleb Chen.
VPNs have drawbacks. They funnel all user traffic through one point, so they are an attractive target for hackers and spies. The biggest obstacle to their routine use as a privacy safeguard is that they can be a hassle to set up. They also cost money.
“The further along toward being a computer scientist you have to be to use a VPN, the smaller a portion of the population we’re talking about that can use it,” said Ernesto Falcon, a legislative counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which opposed the bill.
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