Courtesy Rory Carroll, theGuardian.co.uk
The new NSA data centre is not far from Pete Ashdown’s privacy-centric internet service provider. The irony is not lost on him. Photograph: Rick Bowmer/AP
Silicon Valley’s role in US government surveillance has triggered public anxiety about the internet, but it turns out there is at least one tech company you can trust with your data. The only problem: it’s a relative minnow in the field, operating from offices in Utah.
Xmission, Utah’s first independent and oldest internet service provider, has spent the past 15 years resolutely shielding customers’ privacy from government snoops in a way that larger rivals appear to have not.
The company, a comparative midget with just 30,000 subscribers, cited the Fourth Amendment in rebuffing warrantless requests from local, state and federal authorities, showing it was possible to resist official pressure.
"I would tell them I didn’t need to respond if they didn’t have a warrant, that (to do so) wouldn’t be constitutional," the founder and chief executive, Pete Ashdown, said in an interview at his Salt Lake City headquarters.
Since 1998 he rejected dozens of law enforcement requests, including Department of Justice subpoenas, on the grounds they violated the US constitution and state law. "I would tell them, please send us a warrant, and then they’d just drop it."
Ashdown, 46, assented just once, on his lawyer’s advice, to a 2010 FBI request backed by a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
"I believe under the fourth amendment digital data is protected. I’m not an unpaid branch of government or law enforcement."
Ashdown was wary about Silicon Valley’s carefully worded insistence that the government had no direct access to servers. Access to networks, not servers, was the key, he said.
Pete Ashdown has rejected dozens of law enforcement requests, citing user privacy laws.
The state attorney general alleged XMission was soft on crime but the company, with a staff of 45 and turnover of $7m, suffered no official retaliation, said Ashdown. "I didn’t feel that I was in danger, or that my business suffered."
In the wake of revelations over National Security Agency surveillance and ties to Silicon Valley he has published a reportdetailing official information requests, and the company’s response, over the past three years.
The Electronic Freedom Foundation called it a model for the industry. "XMission’s transparency report is one of the most transparent we’ve seen," said Nate Cardozo, a lawyer for the San Francisco-based advocacy group.
EFF has lobbied big service providers – in vain – to publish individual government requests and their responses to the requests. Google and other giants would need a different format for scale but could emulate the Utah minnow’s spirit, said Cardozo. "The major service providers should demonstrate their commitment to their users and take XMission’s transparency report as a model."
EFF’s most recent Who Has Your Back report – an annual ranking of privacy protection by big tech companies – gave Twitter the maximum of six stars and just one each to Apple and Yahoo.
Utah is an unlikely home for an internet privacy champion. The state’s conservative politicians cheered the Bush-era Patriot Act and welcomed the NSA’s new 1m sq ft data centre at Bluffdale, outside Salt Lake City.
Ashdown, who toured the facility with a group of local data centre operators, said he had not received NSA information requests but saw irony in it siting its data behemoth in his backyard.
The agency’s online snooping betrayed public trust, he said. "Post 9/11 paranoia has turned this into a surveillance state. It’s not healthy."
The only solution to internet snooping was encryption, he said, a pointhe repeated on a blog.
Ashdown, 46, attributes part of his wariness of authority to his mother, who saw the Nazis overrun Denmark. He ran as the Democratic candidate for the US senate in 2006, promising to bring technology savvy to Washington, but lost to the Republican incumbent, Orrin Hatch. He ran again in 2012, but lost in the primary.
An additional disappointment was the discovery that many if not most ordinary people – at least until the NSA scandal – cared little about privacy when selecting internet providers. "Unfortunately it’s not what people think about. They put name recognition and cost ahead of privacy."
(Credit: Screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET)
Is your Internet provider as fast as its rivals? A new Netflix page could provide the answer.
Launched today, the site’s ISP Speed Index page displays the performance of certain ISPs in the U.S., the U.K., Ireland, Mexico, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland. As such, it doesn’t cover the entire world but simply those countries where Netflix is available.
In the U.S., Google Fiber took the top spot with an average speed of 3.35 megabits per second. Cablevision’s Optimum service was No. 2 with a speed of 2.35Mbps, followed by Suddenlink, Cox, and Verizon Fios. Rounding out the bottom of the U.S. list were AT&T’s DSL, Verizon’s DSL, and Clearwire.
Google Fiber also proved the fastest around the world, followed by Sweden’s Ownit with an average speed of 2.99Mbps. Finland offers Netflix subscribers the highest speed on average, while Mexico ranked the lowest.
What if your ISP is at the bottom of the barrel? There may not be much you can do about it.
In the U.S., the quickest connection is provided by Google Fiber, which so far is restricted to just Kansas City, Kan., and Kansas City, Mo. Verizon Fios also fared well but its coverage too is limited.
Otherwise, cable companies typically provide the fastest speeds. But the cable industry is a monopoly with only one choice available in any one area. So if you’re unhappy with Comcast, you can’t just jump ship to Cablevision.
Until the day when services like Google Fiber are more ubiquitous, most people are pretty much stuck with whichever ISP serves the neighborhood.
The ISP Index Page reports the current month’s findings and is updated with each new month. You can also view the findings in a graph format that tracks performance over a selected period of time.
Netflix compiles its speed numbers by measuring the video streaming performance of its subscribers. The company uses data from more than 33 million people around the world who stream over 1 billion hours of TV shows and movies each month.
The speeds listed indicate the average performance of Netflix streams across each ISP and not the peak performance that many users may see.
The measurements show only the speed of Netflix streams and not an ISP’s overall performance. Also, Internet providers that are connected directly to Netflix via the company’s Open Connect content delivery network (CDN) are likely to deliver a better streaming performance than those that are not.
Netflix’s CDN places cached servers at certain locations across an ISP’s network, which speeds up video streams and other bandwidth-intensive content.
Cablevision, which took second place on the U.S. rankings, joined Netflix’s CDN in January. Verizon Fios, which was No. 5 on the list, and Time Warner Cable, which was No. 7 on the list, are not part of the CDN.
Updated 11:25 a.m. PT to add information about Netflix’s CDN.