A version of this story was originally published on Continuations.
Last week, the Republican-controlled Senate voted to allow ISPs to sell customer data, including browsing history without prior customer consent. I tweeted in response that it is “Time to tunnel all home traffic through a proxy.”
Yesterday, Congress voted — 215-205, largely along party lines — to cancel regulations that would have required internet providers to seek a customer’s permission before collecting private data, including web-browsing history, and sharing it with third parties like advertisers.
First, let me explain for a less technical reader what that means. At the moment, your ISP can see every web request you make. They can’t see inside encrypted requests, and much of the web is encrypted these days (https versus http). But they can see whether you are going to Netflix or to Hulu. So being able to sell this information is valuable. Hulu might want to target their advertising at households that don’t already use Hulu. If you establish an encrypted tunnel to a proxy first, then all your connections goes through that proxy, and your ISP no longer knows anything about which sites or services you are accessing.
Many people have objected to ISPs being able to do this with a privacy argument. As readers of this blog or my book, “World After Capital,” know, I think privacy is a red herring that is leading us down a path toward controlled computation. So on what grounds then am I objecting to this? Quite simple: This is a further abuse of monopoly power by broadband ISPs. I live on 22nd Street in the Chelsea section of Manhattan, and I have zero choice in broadband providers. My only available option is Spectrum, formerly known as Time Warner Cable. That’s it. Verizon Fios is not available on my block. And even if it were, the two have stopped competing meaningfully with each other.
I already pay a lot of money for relatively poor bandwidth. As someone from Chattanooga pointed out, they have a homegrown municipal ISP that provides them with 10GB. I just ran Speedtest and got a measly 6.6 MBps downstream (and before you comment, yes, I have a fast router and switch setup, and this is far below the speeds my Wi-Fi supports). So instead of allowing my monopoly provider to make even more money, I am looking for the opposite: Better service at a lower price.
There are two routes toward that end goal. In the long run, we can and will have more competition in the local access market. This will happen as wireless technology improves and as some competitive offerings enter the market. At USV, we have funded Pilot Fiber and bought a stake in Tucows (both deals led by my partner, Brad Burnham). This will likely take decades to play itself out, though.
In the meantime, we need regulation that limits how my local monopoly (or maybe duopoly) can use its market power to extract economics from customers and distort access to the internet. This is really the same reason I have been a longstanding proponent of net neutrality.
Coming back to the idea of tunneling all traffic through a proxy: If you choose a free proxy, please realize that it is free in all likelihood because they are selling your data! After all, operating a proxy costs them money. If you set up your own proxy or use a paid service, you will now have cost on top of your ISP bill.
So why do I still recommend doing this? I see it as an act of protest against undue market power. It is a way of individually reclaiming some of the power that the government has just stripped from us and transferred to our monopoly providers. A tunnel removes the ISP’s ability to make more money on your data, and it reestablishes net neutrality for you (as the ISP can no longer treat traffic from different sources with different priorities).
Albert Wenger is a partner at Union Square Ventures, a New York-based early-stage VC firm focused on investing in disruptive networks. USV portfolio companies include Twitter, Tumblr, Foursquare, Etsy, Kickstarter and Shapeways. Before joining USV, Wenger was the president of del.icio.us through the company’s sale to Yahoo. He previously founded or co-founded five companies, including a management consulting firm (in Germany), a hosted data analytics company, a technology subsidiary for Telebanc (now E*Tradebank), an early-stage investment firm and, most recently (with his wife), DailyLit, a service for reading books by email or RSS. Reach him @albertwenger.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.