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.
A decade of revelations has underlined the intimate relationship between many telecommunications companies and Washington officialdom. Leading providers including AT&T and Verizon handed billions of customer telephone records to the National Security Agency; only Qwest refused to participate. Verizon turned over customer data to the FBI without court orders. An AT&T whistleblower accused the company of illegally opening its network to the NSA, a practice that the U.S. Congress retroactively made legal in 2008.
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.