An entrepreneur is planning the first Internet Service Provider designed to prioritize consumer privacy.
Nicholas Merrill, 39, is in the process of planning a new Internet provider that is designed to protect customers from surveillance. As well as utilizing tools like encryption for its purpose, Merrill also intends the organization to directly challenge State actions that don’t comply with the constitution or have only tenuous links to existing telecommunications or surveillance laws.
With all the recent coverage of ISPs yielding under the mighty hammer of the State, news of this freedom fighter’s attempts to set up a provider that prioritizes customers over the government is sweet music to many ears.
Described as a “non-profit telecommunications provider dedicated to privacy, using ubiquitous encryption”, the new service provider would not only supply Internet connections, but also cell phone service to the privacy-loving public. Plans would be affordable, starting at $20 a month for Internet service.
Merrill’s plans for his new venture present a start contrast with the ethos of telecommunications giants, such as Verizon and AT&T. Both companies have been outed for dubious practices in the past, including handing over customer data to the FBI without a court order. Despite some existing ISPs grumbling about the government’s crack-down on consumer internet habits, none have yet made an overt stand against the expanded police powers associated with Patriot Act.
Merrill, previously an exec of a New York-based ISP, has a history of defying the Washington powers and fighting for consumer rights. He made headlines, anonymously, in 2007, when he outed the FBI for sending him a “national security letter” in 2004. The letter asked for confidential customer details and contained an informal gagging order, preventing him from declaring the letter existed. As this “national security letter” wasn’t actually a formal court order, Merrill took the case to court, and a federal judge barred the gag order, stating it violated the First Amendment. Merrill wasn’t able to discuss the case publicly as himself until six years after he received the letter, in 2010.
His new ISP will be run by the non-profit Calyx Institute, whose creation was inspired by his lengthy run-in with the FBI. “Calyx will use all legal and technical means available to protect the privacy and integrity of user data,” Merrill says about his new venture. When it comes to data requests from the government, “The idea that we are working on is to not be capable of complying.”
This is because his ISP’s connection will use end-to-end encryption for browsing, as well as email stored in encrypted form. So in the event of any demands for emails, data, or similar, Calyx couldn’t hand over the information – even if they wanted to.
Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union commented “I have no doubt that such an organization would be extremely useful. Our ability to protect individual privacy in the realm of telecommunications depends on the availability of phone companies and ISPs willing to work with us, and unfortunately the number of companies willing to publicly challenge the government is exceedingly small.”
Merrill is currently trying to raise the $2 million he needs to start the project using venture capital, and through a donations page on crowd-sourcing platform indiegogo.com.