VPNs are not the solution to a policy problem

The US House of Representatives just voted to eliminate the FCC ISP privacy rules. If you are interested in a further reading about the details of said rules, this article is a good place to get started.

As Americans begin to accept this new reality, the discourse shifts to what we can do to workaround this particular issue. Yes, VPNs are a workaround at best, and a shitty one at that.

Let me explain.

Do you trust your VPN provider?

You have just moved your ‘net traffic’s exit point to a VPN provider (this may be a managed VPN provider or a standalone OpenVPN instance on your favourite VPS service.

Have you read your provider’s privacy policy? Do they have a legal team? Are they using simple Pre-Shared Keys? Is your provider encrypting traffic at all?

Yes, that last one happens. A research paper (PDF) found that 18 percent of Android VPN apps they analyzed didn’t encrypt traffic at all. If you are interested in a further explanation of that paper, read this.

If you are technically inclined, you may say, “well I know how to configure OpenVPN so I am fine”, which brings me to my next point.

Scalability and Friction

While you may be able to configure OpenVPN on a VPS, the vast majority of people are not able to. The vast majority of people have no interest in learning the intricacies of configuring a VPN, nor should they have to.

The VPN workaround doesn’t scale, there are two possible solutions here. One could use a potentially shitty VPN provider with a false sense of security that may be worse than just passing traffic through your home ISP as normal. Or one could learn how to configure something like OpenVPN to route all our router’s internet bound traffic through your VPS provider*.

*: Not Netflix because they don’t like VPNs.

The second solution only works for a small minority that has a working knowledge of systems and network administration.

We need a different hammer or maybe multiple ones

As a technically minded person myself, it can be tempting to wave the wand of a technical solution to a problem caused by policy or in this case a lack thereof.

We must remember that said solution(s) are maybe temporary workarounds at best and a false sense of security at worst.

As a Canadian, my knowledge of the US political system is fairly minimal but as I understand the House of Representatives and the Senate are up for re-election in 2018. If your representative is one of those that voted to repeal the privacy rules: do not let up the pressure on them.