Privacy, Please: Can Distributed VPNs Reform the Web?
VPNs are everywhere - but can distributed VPNs improve on them?
When Binance began to turn U.S.-based customers away from its DEX earlier this year, many of its customers turned to VPNs to bypass the geoblock. Pretty much any VPN would do the trick, and there are a lot to choose from. In fact, there’s even a new category: distributed VPNs, which often utilize cryptocurrency and cryptography.
Distributed VPNs improve upon their traditional counterparts in a number of ways. First of all, they don’t require you to trust a single VPN company with your data; instead, a P2P network handles your encrypted traffic.
Secondly, distributed VPNs can make use of cryptocurrency payments to open the VPN market to buyers and sellers alike.
Unfortunately, most distributed VPNs are a work in progress. They need to figure out ways to bypass large-scale restrictions and prevent government surveillance without getting on the wrong side of things. Plus, they need to build sizable node networks.
These things take time, so let’s see if these three VPNs are up to the task.
Brave’s VPN⁰: This Year’s Newest Distributed VPN Project
Brave, the popular browser company, proposed VPN⁰ this month. Essentially, VPN⁰’s Distributed Hash Tables allow users to find VPN nodes who are willing to serve their content. Meanwhile, zero-knowledge proofs assure nodes that they are handling data that they have chosen to whitelist. This is all done without exposing user traffic.
Additionally, Brave’s VPN⁰ is aiming for high performance through the use of VPN chains. These basically allow traffic to quickly pass between nodes without noticeable interruptions for end users. Though Brave researchers did notice some delays during testing, they believe that this can be solved as development moves forward.
Brave hasn’t revealed whether VPN⁰ will rely on its Basic Attention Token, but the idea has been floated. In 2018, Brave CEO Brendan Eich said that he asked the community about “a BraveVPN paid for in BAT” and received a positive response.
That said, Brave hasn’t actually announced a browser feature yet—VPN⁰ is still being researched.
Mysterium: An Ethereum-Based Distributed VPN
Mysterium is another distributed VPN with a dual focus on user privacy and traffic whitelisting. But unlike Brave, Mysterium’s whitelists are created by Mysterium itself, not by individual nodes. This means that nodes must register with Mysterium – a policy that may be vulnerable to outside influence, even though Mysterium opposes censorship.
Right now, Mysterium is working on performance. It currently has 176 active nodes, and it is preparing to send test traffic from three businesses. This test will reveal the “detailed technical requirements of [the] network.” Mysterium is also considering multi-hop routing, which could improve performance, much like Brave’s VPN chains.
Mysterium is mainly using blockchain for cryptocurrency payments. Right now, it is paying node operators about $50 of ETH per month to handle test traffic. There isn’t a VPN service for end users yet, but eventually, Mysterium will allow users to pick VPN providers from a marketplace and pay for the service with the MYST token.
EthVPN: A Distributed VPN For Casual Use
EthVPN is a relatively slapdash project: it admits that it can’t guarantee privacy, and it warns that its independent node operators could sell your data. It also suggests that users with privacy concerns turn to the Tor browser. “EthVPN trades privacy guarantees for speed, robustness, and convenience,” the official website proclaims.
Despite EthVPN’s devil-may-care attitude toward security, the project is in good hands. The lead developer is Virgil Griffith, a prominent Ethereum research scientist. However, EthVPN is quick to note that it has no relationship with the Ethereum Foundation; rather, EthVPN merely allows Ethereum payments, though it is free right now.
If you’re only trying to bypass geoblocks or censorship, EthVPN’s risky nature might be an acceptable compromise. Since the network doesn’t put restrictions on node membership or IP addresses, it is “nigh-impossible to block.”
Plus, EthVPN is available right now, which is more than can be said for Mysterium and Brave’s VPNs.
Can Distributed VPNs Compete With The Rest?
Distributed VPNs may face challenges. First of all, they may not be able to offer absolute freedom. It remains to be seen how much of a hands-off approach Brave and Mysterium are really willing to take. On top of this, it’s not clear whether they will be vulnerable to ISP speed throttling, government-imposed VPN bans, and the like.
Furthermore, crypto-based VPN marketplaces might not offer killer deals. Well-known services like ProtonVPN offer free-tier plans, a price that is hard to beat. And when you consider that the Opera browser offers a free built-in VPN… well, that suggests Brave can’t realistically charge very much money for its own VPN service.
Speed might not be a selling point, either. One recent survey suggests that many VPNs can match typical Internet speeds: “the chances of maxing out the bandwidth available is pretty slim,” Comparitech says. Distributed VPNs might build robust node networks and streamline their encryption, but they probably won’t seem faster to users.
Finally, nodes might choose to dedicate their bandwidth to other distributed networks. File storage services like Sia and Filecoin and CDNs like NKN also provide crypto incentives for P2P data transfer. Node operators have limited bandwidth, and ultimately, market forces will decide whether distributed VPNs are a profitable pursuit or not.