On Net Neutrality, VPNs, the Decentralized Web, and Supercomputers

Now that net neutrality is dead here in America, you may be left wondering: is there anything I can do to fight this? Well, there’s a pretty strong case to be made for virtual private networks (VPNs) in light of the news, and there’s an even stronger case to be made for decentralized web protocols that run on the blockchain. Both VPNs and crypto platforms like Substratum and Golem could allow people to circumvent the potential manipulation of data access that net neutrality’s repeal may invite.

Bye Bye Neutrality

If you haven’t heard the news yet, we hate to break it to you, but the United States Federal Communications Commission repealed net neutrality last week in a 3-2 vote.

The Obama-era regulations were put in place to ensure that internet service providers treat all internet data and traffic equally. This meant that service providers could not dictate what web content they provided and how fast this content could be accessed.

But with net neutrality gone, these mandates are relics of the past. Without them, providers can now discriminate between what content and data they privilege or disclaim.  They’ll be allowed to charge website and content providers premiums for faster loading times. If a website doesn’t (or can’t) pay for one of these fast lanes, that ISP’s customers will face longer loading times and crippled access to said website as a result.

Asking content providers to pay for fast lanes could open the door to charging customers for content packages. In Portugal, for example, a lack of net neutrality protections has given way to an ecosystem of subscriptions that consumers must purchase on top of internet costs in order to access certain websites.

It also means that providers can directly block access to applications, sites, and services that they don’t wish to accommodate. If AT&T decided to drop support for, say, comcast.net’s email services, they’d be within their legal rights to do so.

Could VPNs Offer a Solution?

Opponents of net neutrality have long held that virtual private networks could provide shelter to consumers wishing to weather the fallout of net neutrality’s termination.  

In a nutshell, a VPN is a server that runs as an encrypted gateway to the world wide web. You still need a traditional ISP to connect to a VPN, but once you’re connected, the VPN encrypts all your internet activity and data. Only you and the VPN itself can see what you’re using your internet for, and while your ISP can see that you’re using a VPN provider, your IP address will be hidden and replaced by that of the VPN. If you’re in America and you’re using a VPN based in Canada, for example, your internet usage will be tracked back to Canada.

The privacy features VPNs offer make them an attractive tool to potentially combat ISP data manipulation. If ISPs start privileging certain sites over others or begin charging for fast lanes, a VPN tunnel’s encryption could allow internet users to avoid these changes.

If a VPN hides your network traffic, ISPs can’t see which websites you’ve been accessing. Thus, your service provider cannot block or target your use of specific websites. Since they can’t tell what you’re using your internet for, they have to treat all traffic the same, as in the good old days of net neutrality.

Potential Limitations and Concerns

Some observers have speculated that, while ISPs cannot control individual traffic run through VPNs, they could still place a hold on VPN services. Theoretically, providers could throttle all of a VPN’s traffic, effectively doing with an entire network what they couldn’t do otherwise with specific data.

Throttling a VPN’s entire service is possible, but it would come with its own difficulties. From an enterprise standpoint, many corporations and their customers use VPNs for their work and business relations, so ISPs would likely face backlash from America’s corporate sector if they wanted to firmly control these encrypted gateways.  

VPN providers have the ability to combat this possibility as well. They could effectively cycle their IP addresses constantly, forcing ISPs to take on the hassle of keeping an updated list of all new IPs in order to fully police content.  

Among the most prominent doubters of VPNs’ efficacy in a post-net neutral world is Ethereum cofounder Vitalik Buterin. In a December 16 tweet, he argued that “VPNs cannot do anything here, because the ISPs can just treat VPN traffic as ‘unknown’, and do not apply any discounts to it.”

Buterin believes that “[t]he one solution in the decentralized space that could help if anything at all would be full-scale adoption of mesh networks.” A mesh network is an infrastructure of nodes and bridges that relay information without relying on a single node for its data source.

Enter Substratum and Company

Decentralized networks like Substratum could be the skeleton key to unlocking an unrestricted internet outside of net neutrality. Substratum acts like a mesh network for the internet and its information.

With Substratum, users will be able to access internet content through an encrypted network without needing a VPN or the Tor browser. The network consists of a series of individually peer-run nodes, and once you access one of these nodes, all of your internet data is encrypted. So, much as with a VPN, ISPs will not be able to monitor your internet activity or the websites you access, and as we noted earlier with VPNs, this would make ISPs powerless to throttle or control your access to specific websites.

Unlike VPNs, however, internet gateways are split up between multiple nodes. So instead of accessing web content from a centralized server like you would with a VPN, with Substratum, your access point comes from a handful of servers, not just one. This would make it extremely difficult for ISPs to control all of the traffic on Substratum’s network like they could with VPNs, as there’s no single, unified source for them to target.

It’s also possible that Golem, a decentralized computing platform, could offer solutions to reinstate a de facto net neutrality.  

The Golem project is trying to build a global supercomputer on the blockchain. With Golem, anyone can use their spare computer processing power and hard drive space to run one of the Golem network’s innumerable nodes. Theoretically, this protocol could develop an ISP infrastructure of its own using a globalized network of Wi-Fi hotspots. If this were achieved, it would create a decentralized internet service free from centralized providers like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon.

It’s quite probable that blockchain technology could revive net neutrality for American citizens going forward. Decentralized web platforms like Substratum may be able to bypass an ISP’s data policing, and if Golem can construct an internet infrastructure of its own, you won’t even need to subscribe to traditional ISPs to access the web. This potential feature, however, is still a long way away from becoming a reality, as Golem doesn’t even have its network live yet. Substratum’s solution, on the other hand, is more feasibly in reach, as its network is scheduled to launch next month.