There’s no shortage of news stories about net neutrality, tiered internet packages, and internet fast lanes these days. With internet freedoms on the chopping block, a lot of web users have been looking for alternative methods to secure their online rights, even if net neutrality is repealed. Virtual private networks (VPNs) are one of the most popular methods of staying safe and anonymous online. Running a VPN can help keep your ‘net free and open, but they’re not one-stop solutions for all things related to net neutrality.
- 1 The Basics of Net Neutrality
- 2 Encryption’s Role in Net Neutrality
- 3 VPNs and Net Neutrality
- 4 Saving Net Neutrality
- 5 Which VPNs to Use
- 6 Conclusion
The Basics of Net Neutrality
Net neutrality refers to content agnostic internet access that isn’t controlled, filtered, or shaped by outside parties. With net neutrality in place, anyone can go online, visit any website, and expect to see the same content as anyone in the world, all delivered at the same speed. It’s sometimes referred to as a “dumb pipe” or “dumb network”, as the service should simply pass requests back and forth without monitoring or interfering in anyone’s activities.
Many countries around the world have cemented net neutrality laws in place, forbidding any kind of government or corporate interference with the free and open internet. Others fight constant battles between users and internet service providers (ISPs) looking to increase their profit margins by removing basic freedoms. The United States has been tangled in this battle since 2014, with some extremely important repeals being voted on in 2017.
Protecting net neutrality means keeping the concept of free speech as a core tenant of online access. We’re used to a digital world that doesn’t place barriers on the content we interact with. Losing net neutrality means giving up those rights. ISPs will have complete control over what we see and how much we pay to see it. Below are a few of the biggest issues facing internet users in the U.S. if the net neutrality laws are repealed.
Internet Fast Lanes
Paid prioritization plans attack both businesses and web users at the same time. The scheme essentially divides internet access into two groups: a slow lane and a fast lane. All websites and all home users fall into the slow lane category by default, accessing sites at a speed set and artificially enforced by the ISP. If a business wants their content to be delivered faster, they have to pay the ISP to enter that lane. The same holds true for users. If you want fast access to fast sites, open up your wallet and start forking over the cash.
Apart from being obvious grabs for money by ISPs, internet fast lanes hurt small businesses who can’t afford to pay for increased speeds. This allows large and established companies to dominate the online world, stifling innovation and preventing new ideas from taking hold. A 2009 study showed that internet users aren’t willing to wait for more than a single second for a page to load. Any business that doesn’t pay for fast lane access could lose up to 11% of their customers, all because the ISPs wanted to make more money.
Website Access Packages
An equally chilling effect of losing net neutrality is the idea of site access packages. Now, if you want to visit a website, any website at all, you only need to type in the URL. Without guaranteed net neutrality laws in place, however, ISPs can block websites and force you to upgrade your plan before logging in. Imagine not being able to watch YouTube videos, check Facebook messages, or browse random websites without paying a premium to your ISP. Plans like these are a reality in some areas of the world, and they could become commonplace in the U.S. if net neutrality is lost.
Encryption’s Role in Net Neutrality
The “dumb network” of net neutrality means all information is treated the same. It’s possible for ISPs to look at each packet of data to determine which user requested it, what its contents are, and where its intended destination lies, but in the interest of speed and efficiency this usually isn’t done. The moment net neutrality is removed, however, ISPs will inspect and log every packet of data and use that information to control what you see and how you see it.
How Encryption Works
This is where encryption comes into play. The basic idea behind encryption is that each packet of data gets wrapped in a layer of extremely complex code. This code is built out of impossible to solve mathematical problems created by cryptography algorithms. The only way to see what’s inside the encrypted package is to use a coded key created when the data was encrypted in the first place. Your computer has one of these keys, and the trusted party who encrypted the information has another. This creates a sort of private tunnel that can bypass ISP snooping efforts with ease.
When an ISP looks at an encrypted packet, all they see is that it’s encrypted. They can’t tell what’s inside or where it’s ultimately headed, only that it’s a piece of data they’re supposed to pass to another destination. With encryption, an ISP can’t tell if you’re trying to access Facebook or Wikipedia, meaning they’ll have a difficult time deciding whether to restrict or allow access.
How VPNs Use Encryption
Encryption is used by countless websites, businesses, banks, and other security-conscious entities. It’s not exactly a rare thing these days! In fact, every time you see “https” in your URL bar instead of just “http”, you’re accessing encrypted information. It’s likely your own cell phone stores its data in an encrypted format, as well.
With a VPN, data gets locked in the cryptography box before it leaves your device. You type in a website, the VPN software encrypts the request, and that request is sent through your ISP. The ISP can’t decipher the data and simply passes it along to the VPN’s servers. Your VPN then decrypts the data using the right keys, fetches the data you requested, encrypts the packets again, and sends them back through the private tunnel. The entire process is only a little slower than a standard internet connection, but it’s much more private and secure.
VPNs and Net Neutrality
VPNs do two major things for users: anonymity and encryption. The former masks your identity and location by routing traffic through non-local servers. The latter wraps each packet of data in a cloak of cryptography to make it impossible to decipher. Both of these work together to help keep your internet access open even in the face of government level censorship blocks or ISP throttling controls. Even if net neutrality is lost, using a VPN might be able to preserve some of your freedoms.
How VPNs Can Help
Most of what VPNs do takes place on your local device. Encryption and identity obfuscation can go a long way to remedying issues that crop up as a result of the loss of net neutrality. In theory, VPNs can help break through barriers like tiered internet packages, restricted website plans, simplistic throttling methods, and even blocked search engine results. None of this is guaranteed, though, which is why net neutrality is a tremendously important issue, even if you have a good VPN.
How effective VPNs will be without net neutrality remains to be seen. It all depends on which control methods ISPs deploy and how they put them into practice. The sad truth is that for every censorship-breaking method VPNs use, ISPs have ways of fighting back.
VPNs vs Tiered Internet Packages
Using a combination of encryption and anonymizing practices, VPNs do have the ability to break through certain tiered internet package set-ups. It all depends on how the ISP structures the blocking system on their end, however. Some of the more basic methods simply scan incoming packets, compare the request to tiered website lists, then decide whether or not to allow the traffic through. VPNs make short work of these efforts, but in all likelihood ISPs will take stronger measures to prevent this from happening, such as account matching or deep packet inspection.
What VPNs Can’t Fix
Even if ISPs deploy just the basic measures against encrypted internet access, there are still certain restrictions VPNs won’t be able to get around. Internet fast lanes are at the top of the list, as it’s easy for an ISP to set up a whitelist that allows premium members higher speeds while dumping everyone else, including anonymous VPN users, into the slow lane. Data caps are wholly unaffected by VPNs, as well. In fact, VPNs can actually add to the amount of data you consume, causing you to reach your limit sooner than intended.
Finally, the problems of net neutrality extend far beyond what we see on our computers and cell phones. VPNs are limited to the end user and will have no affect on small businesses trying to gain a foothold in the online world. The long reaching results of losing net neutrality simply can’t be saved by running a VPN.
How ISPs Can Beat VPNs
In addition to issues VPNs can’t affect, ISPs can also deploy specific measures to stop people from using VPNs. Encrypted traffic is usually sent through a different port, for example. If an ISP blocks that port, none of your data can get through. ISPs can also block VPN IP addresses or quietly throttle the connections to discourage anonymous use.
Saving Net Neutrality
In an ideal world, we’d never have to use a VPN for any reason. Hackers wouldn’t exist, government agencies wouldn’t spy on people, and ISPs would provide fast service to everyone without begging for more money. Since we don’t quite live in a utopia, however, we need to do all we can to save net neutrality. It’s the only thing standing between us and ever-greedier ISPs. Below are a few things you can do to make your voice heard and save the open internet.
Support Net Neutrality Organizations
It may seem like every company in the world is out to destroy our internet, but there are some groups whose sole purpose is to keep the it open and free. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Save the Internet are two of the most prominent. The EFF itself has done an amazing amount of work over the years to promote digital freedoms and online privacy. In the battle for net neutrality, they’ve deployed legal teams and worked with a variety of pro-neutrality corporations to help save the internet. Joining their outreach efforts or donating funds are both great ways to help further the cause.
Participate in Politics
The decisions surrounding net neutrality are all made by politicians, many of which are voted on by average citizens. If you live in the U.S. and want to make a difference, contact your congressman and let them know what you think about net neutrality. BattleForTheNet has all the tools you need to locate your representative and get in touch, including sample scripts to help keep you informed.
Voting is another way you can shape the online scene. Find out when the next elections are in your state, look into the candidates and their stance on digital freedoms, then cast a vote in their favor. This is a slow but effective method of change, and it helps ensure a better internet for everyone in the long run.
Break the Internet
When things get tough, it’s time to take drastic action. The Break the Internet website offers copy/paste scripts, images, and information you can use to post on social media or configure your website to simulate what the web would be like if players like ISPs and Ajit Pai have their way. These measures help raise awareness and spur even more people to take action, especially when deployed before critical voting periods.
Which VPNs to Use
When it comes to defeating tiered internet packages, all VPNs aren’t created equal. You’ll have a tough time getting through any kind of censorship or paywall barrier using free or low-quality VPNs, not to mention the privacy concerns using these services can bring. Ultimately, you want a VPN with strong encryption, an unassailable reputation, a stellar zero-logging policy, and good server speeds. It’s a tall order to fill, but we’ve found a few recommended VPNs that do the job well.
Two things stand out about the ExpressVPN experience: speed and ease of use. The VPN offers some incredibly well-designed apps for all major devices and platforms, making each connection as simple as tapping a button. When you’re online you’ll stay safe with 256-bit AES encryption, a great zero-logging policy, and both kill switch and DNS leak protection. ExpressVPN also offers 1,700 servers around the globe, ensuring you always have a speedy connection to get you through the day!
IPVanish is known for its superb balance of speed and security. Most VPNs struggle to keep encryption protocols strong without sacrificing fast connections. With IPVanish this is never a problem. The service’s network is 850 servers strong, all carrying anonymous data secured with 256-bit AES encryption, DNS leak protection, and a zero-logging policy. IPVanish is great for staying invisible online, streaming videos, or even downloading torrents anonymously!
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NordVPN has some stellar features that make it a great choice for a fast and reliable VPN. It starts with one of the largest networks in the industry, over 2,220 servers in 56 different countries, a number that’s always on the rise! You’ll stay safe with an amazing zero-logging policy along with 256-bit AES encryption, kill switch and DNS leak protection, along with exclusive NordVPN features like anti-DDoS servers, Tor over VPN, dedicated IP addresses, and double encryption settings.
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VyprVPN is one of the best VPNs to secure your online privacy. The company owns and operates a fast network of servers, all of which are secured with 256-bit AES encryption, DNS leak protection, and a zero-logging policy. More importantly is the company’s Chameleon protocol, a wonderful and exclusive feature that wraps packet metadata in an extra layer of security to defeat deep packet inspection. It’s an excellent choice for breaking through censorship barriers and defeating tiered internet packages!
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So, can VPNs defeat tired internet packages? The answer is maybe, but maybe not. No VPN will be an all-in-one solution if net neutrality is repealed, as ISPs always have tools at their disposal to block or restrict VPN users from accessing content. It could be a long and difficult back and forth battle, it all depends on how voting goes and what ISPs are allowed to do as a result. In the meantime, it’s a good idea to do everything you can to help preserve net neutrality. Got any tips to help save the ‘net? Let us know in the comments below!