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Four ways to survive the end of net neutrality today

Federal regulations mandating a free internet have formally expired, but there are still ways to protect your access and privacy.

Four ways to survive the end of net neutrality today
[Photo: Flickr user Christiaan Colen]

As of today, federal net neutrality protections, which basically prohibit internet service providers from giving preferential treatment to certain websites, are no more. They essentially were killed on December 14, 2017, when the FCC voted to turn back the clock and restore the unregulated status quo that existed long before the agency’s 2015 Open Internet Order. As a result, ISPs will be able to speed up, slow down, or even block access to online content.

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Whether this is catastrophic or inconsequential depends on whether you trust your ISP to do the right thing. If you you’re a skeptic, there are still ways to safeguard unfettered internet access, and also prevent ISPs from harvesting your personal data for financial gain (protections that Congress abolished in 2017). Here are some financial, technical, and political measures you can take.

1) Find net neutrality- and privacy-friendly ISPs

All ISPs say they value net neutrality and customer privacy, but big players like Comcast and AT&T lobbied to abolish federal protections. In contrast, over 40 smaller landline and mobile providers sent a letter to FCC chairman Ajit Pai back in June 2017, expressing their support for the regulations. To see if any of these companies are options for you, use this ISP lookup tool created by MapBox to see what providers are available in your area.

2) Subscribe to a virtual private network

An ISP can’t snoop on, or differentiate how it handles, internet traffic it can’t read. VPN services encrypt connections between your computer and a VPN service provider–making the content opaque to your ISP. Check out CNET’s directory of recommended VPN services.

There are free VPNs, but they often provide poor bandwidth, and some have actually spied on users. So plan on paying about $3 to $12 per month for a reputable service. VPN software runs on individual computers, tablets, or smartphones (the latter protecting you from snooping mobile providers). To protect your whole home, you can invest in a VPN-configured router.

Some streaming media sites may not play well with some or all VPN services. See if VPN providers offer free trials so you can find out for yourself.

3) Use an encrypted DNS service

Encrypted what? If you aren’t familiar with the Domain Name System, here’s all you really need to know: It translates a text URL like “google.com” to the numerical representations that the internet uses. ISPs offer their own DNS services, allowing them to see every site you request.

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But there are independent DNS servers, including ones that encrypt communications to hinder an ISP from “sniffing” the content of requests. Encrypted DNS doesn’t make it impossible for ISPs to manipulate and snoop on your traffic, but it creates obstacles. It also thwarts hacking attacks that exploit vulnerabilities in standard DNS.

The highest-regarded encrypted DNS is run by the Mozilla Foundation (using its Firefox browser) and content-delivery service Cloudflare, at the internet address 1.1.1.1. Learn how it works and how to set it up (not that difficult, we promise) see “Here’s How To Plug One Of The Biggest Privacy Holes In The Internet.”

4) Find consumer-friendly states (or make them that way)

You may live in a state that has passed or is considering its own legislation to protect internet access and privacy. Washington was the first state to pass a net neutrality law, which takes effect as the federal regulations expire on June 11. Vermont’s law comes into force on July 1, and Oregon’s legislation takes effect on January 1, 2019.

Legislation is advancing in other states, most notably California, which may enact a law in the fall. The National Conference of State Legislatures maintains a list of net neutrality legislation passed or in progress, as well as ISP privacy legislation (Minnesota and Nevada already have such laws). You can contact your state legislators to voice support.

The governors of six states (Hawaii, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont) have signed executive orders supporting net neutrality, but these are not as strong or comprehensive as laws.

In a perfect world, you could trust your internet service providers, or your government, to protect online communication. In the real world, you’ll have to take initiative to ensure your safety.

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About the author

Sean Captain is a Bay Area technology, science, and policy journalist. @seancaptain.

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