An ambitious effort to launch an Internet service provider designed from its inception to be privacy-protective and surveillance-resistant has raised more than $43,000 in only one day.
A CNET article published yesterday morning profiled Nicholas Merrill, who's raising funds to launch what he calls a national "nonprofit telecommunications provider dedicated to privacy, using ubiquitous encryption" that will sell mobile phone service and, for as little as $20 a month, Internet connectivity.
Merrill, 39, set up a donation page on the Indiegogo crowd funding site a few hours after the article appeared. With the help of an enthusiastic response on Reddit.com, the donations began pouring in. By this evening, donations had reached $43,214 out of a target of $1 million.
"I had no idea that the crowd funding would take off as much as it has in such a short time," Merrill told CNET today. "I hope that people will continue to spread the word and help Calyx reach its funding goal so this plan can come to fruition sooner rather than later."
Merrill also has a donation page on the Web site of the nonprofit he launched, called The Calyx Institute. (He said that Kickstarter "wouldn't accept Calyx as a campaign because it's not a physical product, or arts-related.")
He added: "I am grateful for the outpouring of support which I think clearly demonstrates that there is a vast public demand for privacy-conscious telecommunications companies"
Calyx isn't exactly the first Internet provider to pitch privacy as a business model. C2Net, better known for developing the Apache Web server software, tried a more limited form before being bought by Red Hat in 2000.
But Merrill has a unique qualification: while running a previous Internet service provider, he was the first person to fight back against the Patriot Act's expanded police powers -- and win.
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, saying it was "an "unconstitutional prior restraint of speech in violation of the First Amendment."
Merrill's plan is to resell wireless service, such as 4G WiMax broadband, and add end-to-end encryption for Web browsing and encrypted e-mail. So if the Feds show up with a legal court order -- something that the National Security Agency and FBI don't always do -- he couldn't help even if he wanted to.
"The idea that we are working on is to not be capable of complying," Merrill says.