Nicholas Merrill is planning to revolutionize online privacy with a
concept as simple as it is ingenious: a telecommunications provider
designed from its inception to shield its customers from surveillance.
Merrill, 39, who previously ran a New York-based Internet provider, told
CNET that he's raising funds to launch a national "non-profit
telecommunications provider dedicated to privacy, using ubiquitous
encryption" that will sell mobile phone service and, for as little as
$20 a month, Internet connectivity.
The ISP would not merely employ every technological means at its
disposal, including encryption and limited logging, to protect its
customers. It would also -- and in practice this is likely more
important -- challenge government surveillance demands of dubious
legality or constitutionality.
By contrast, Merrill says his ISP, to be run by a non-profit called the Calyx Institute
with for-profit subsidiaries, will put customers first. "Calyx will use
all legal and technical means available to protect the privacy and
integrity of user data," he says.
Merrill is in the unique position of being the first ISP exec to fight
back against the Patriot Act's expanded police powers -- and win.
Nick Merrill says that "we will use all legal
and technical means to resist having to hand over information, and
aspire to be the partner in the telecommunications industry that ACLU
and EFF have always needed but never had."
In February 2004, the FBI sent Merrill a secret "national security
letter" (not an actual court order signed by a judge) asking for
confidential information about his customers and forbidding him from
disclosing the letter's existence. He enlisted the ACLU to fight the gag
order, and won. A federal judge barred
the FBI from invoking that portion of the law, ruling it was "an
"unconstitutional prior restraint of speech in violation of the First
Merrill's identity was kept confidential for years as the litigation continued. In 2007, the Washington Post published his anonymous op-ed
which said: "I resent being conscripted as a secret informer for the
government," especially because "I have doubts about the legitimacy of
the underlying investigation." He wasn't able to discuss his case publicly
His recipe for Calyx was inspired by those six years of interminable
legal wrangling with the Feds: Take wireless service like that offered
by Clear, which began selling 4G WiMAX broadband in 2009
Inject end-to-end encryption for Web browsing. Add e-mail that's stored
in encrypted form, so even Calyx can't read it after it arrives. Wrap
all of this up into an easy-to-use package and sell it for competitive
prices, ideally around $20 a month without data caps, though perhaps
prepaid for a full year.
"The idea that we are working on is to not be capable of complying" with
requests from the FBI for stored e-mail and similar demands, Merrill