Explained: in terms of Net Neutrality, will a VPN Stop ISP Throttling, Filtering?

Dennis Faas's picture

Infopackets Reader Corey S. writes:

" Dear Dennis,

With the FCC repealing its plans to protect net neutrality in which all Internet traffic is created equal, will Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) make any difference what Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will be able to monitor and control when it comes to Internet traffic? For example, if there is no net neutrality and suddenly my Internet Service Provider wants to charge me extra to visit Netflix to view movies online, will a VPN help? Will a VPN help in terms of Blocking and Filtering, Internet Fast Lanes, Throttling, Zero Rated Services? Do I need a VPN? "

My response:

This is a very interesting question.

The short answer is "No," a VPN will not protect you against ISP throttling or filtering, Internet Fast Lanes, etc. Whether or not you want a VPN is up to you - depending on what you want to use it for - but in this case, it simply won't work in terms of getting around ISP throttling and filtering.

Here's why.

An anonymous VPN works by re-routing your Internet traffic using a "middle man" (third party server), then routes the traffic back to you. When you do this, the ISP sees the middle man's IP address, the encrypted traffic, and your IP address (your computer). The fact is, you still need to use your Internet Service Provider to connect to a VPN.

And, even though a VPN can encrypt your Internet traffic - which would hide what you're doing online - the ISP still knows that you're using a VPN. In this case, the ISP can simply throttle your traffic immediately. This is not a theory - this is already in practice.

Here's an example. When Netflix started geo-restricting its content, VPNs were used as a way to get around this problem. If I lived in Canada, and couldn't access Netflix USA shows, I could have used an American proxy server (using a VPN) to re-route my traffic and make it look like I was a USA user - and voila! - I could access Netflix USA content. Unfortunately, Netflix has since cracked down on VPNs and this technology simply no longer works (though, some service providers still claim to get around it, I believe it is only a matter of time until they are blocked). In essence it is the same scenario we are discussing - just on a smaller scale.

I hope that helps.

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About the author: Dennis Faas is the owner and operator of Infopackets.com. With over 30 years of computing experience, Dennis' areas of expertise are a broad range and include PC hardware, Microsoft Windows, Linux, network administration, and virtualization. Dennis holds a Bachelors degree in Computer Science (1999) and has authored 6 books on the topics of MS Windows and PC Security. If you like the advice you received on this page, please up-vote / Like this page and share it with friends. For technical support inquiries, Dennis can be reached via Live chat online this site using the Zopim Chat service (currently located at the bottom left of the screen); optionally, you can contact Dennis through the website contact form.

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doulosg's picture

The tone of the discussion suggests that ISPs are the entities to benefit from the recent net neutrality vote. Yet you say that Netflix cracked down on ISPs to prevent users from spoofing their location to obtain content they would otherwise not have access to. Seems to me like the ISPs are just the middlemen in a fight between consumers and providers over the rights to charge or freedom to avoid paying for content. What's REALLY the story, here, Dennis?

David's picture

Netflix cracked down on VPN users, blocking those servers. I live in the US and use a US VPN location, but still had to whitelist Netflix to bypass the VPN before I could watch US content I was paying for. Hulu did the same.

Dennis did make an interesting point. Without regulation to the contrary, an ISP could deliberately slow down traffic that uses a VPN, 'incentivizing' its customers to de-anonymize (for higher speed) in exchange for marketable traffic data.

ISP's can now squeeze content providers trying to reach their audience, and they can squeeze the audience trying to access content. A big win for ISP's and a big loss for everyone else.

Rusty's picture

So do I understand correctly that ISP’s are without doubt going to throttle everything served to their customers through a VPN? I’m not sure why I’m at all surprised. If so, that’s further evidence to me of just how unjust this FCC end to net neutrality is. I believe giving power like this to the unscrupulous cable ISP’s will prove to be a major mistake. Don’t let anyone make you believe that the cable operators are simply innocent bystanders caught in the middle of a battle between providers and consumers. They want to have the leverage to choose which providers can and cannot practically deliver content to consumers. There is little doubt that they will use that advantage in every possible way that benefits them. Despite their PR mumbo-jumbo, The Comcasts of the world are corporate monstrosities with no social conscience. This ruling is a major travesty of justice.