From being viewed as a somewhat niche interest product, VPNs were thrust into the mainstream in recent weeks. Long the go-to tools of privacy advocates and file-sharing enthusiasts alike, VPNs are now on the lips of countless non-tech savvy individuals.
That boost in awareness is largely down to recent moves by the Trump administration to repeal rules that forbid Internet service providers from selling the browsing histories of regular Internet users. After a not particularly long process, the amendments were written into law this week.
While the development possibly won’t have the massive short-term impact some are expecting, the changes have focused the minds of millions who are now aware that what they do online is far from secret. They see VPN use as a massive step forward in reclaiming their privacy online generally, and they’d be right.
Of interest, however, is the approach of Tim Berners-Lee, the man credited with inventing the world wide web. After being honored with the prestigious 2016 Turing Award this week for his “major contributions of lasting importance to computing”, Berners-Lee took time out to discuss a number of topics, with privacy high on the agenda.
“That bill was a disgusting bill, because when we use the web, we are so vulnerable,” he told The Guardian.
“There are things that people do on the web that reveal absolutely everything, more about them than they know themselves sometimes. Because so much of what we do in our lives that actually goes through those left-clicks, it can be ridiculously revealing. You have the right to go to a doctor in privacy where it’s just between you and the doctor. And similarly, you have to be able to go to the web.”
Describing privacy as a “core American value”, Berners-Lee says that if things start going bad with their current supplier, people will switch to more privacy-conscious ISPs. Others will seek out more radical technical measures, such as Tor and VPNs.
“People would start using Tor. They’d start going through proxies so that instead of your Internet traffic going straight to your house it goes to a VPN,” he says.
“Normal people in America will basically go into defense cybersecurity lockdown against their ISPs. Everything will get encrypted. People who care about it will find ways to deprive their ISPs of data. There’ll be a great market for people who provide that technology.”
Indeed, a number of VPN and security product providers have contacted TF indicating that searches for their products increased dramatically as news of the browser history repeal hits the mainstream. But for Berners-Lee, a man with technology in his bones, doing something in the physical world is preferable to electronic counter-measures.
“I’ve got [VPNs] available to me here, but I ought not to do that. Actually, you shouldn’t,” he says.
“[You should be] going to protest so the world outside becomes one where you don’t need to cheat to get around this problem, so that you don’t have to use skills as an expert to get around this problem.”
Of course, there have been protests from both citizens and companies (Private Internet Access spent a rumored $600,000 on a newspaper advert challenging the repeal last week) but it doesn’t appear that those in power are listening – or particularly care.
Whether we like it or not, the web is now largely financially sustained by the farming of our online activities and it seems likely that no amount of protest is going to be able to stop that juggernaut anytime soon.
File-sharers and other privacy advocates have known this for a much longer time than most and already realize that if people don’t look after their own privacy, someone else will do it for them. Protest is certainly good, but it doesn’t hurt to have some solid backup in the meantime.
Image: Paul Clarke (CC-BY-SA)