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While cable and satellite TV providers have been able to charge you according to how many channels you want to watch, federal law has restricted them from doing the same thing to your Internet connection.

But with the repeal of net neutrality at the federal level, providers are now positioned to start separating the Internet into separate tiers: Websites that pay providers a toll to avoid getting bottlenecked, and the remainder of the Internet which won't pay for special treatment -- or cannot afford to.

SEE: A buyer's guide to virtual private networks (VPNs) in 2018

This, of course, is on top of the "traffic agreements," where many high bandwidth services like Netflix were already being charged by Comcast and other Internet service providers (ISP) for the privilege of serving content to Comcast's customers -- on top of the fees that Comcast charges the customers themselves to access Netflix to begin with.

Additionally, due to long-term exclusive contracts set up with city and local officials over the last few decades all over the nation, without input from individual voters, these municipalities are customarily forbidden from entering into agreements with any other competing service, and often forbidden from building one themselves.

In recent years, virtual private networks have entered into this fray of lobbyists, palm greasing, and shakedowns -- and they're not the kind of VPN that's provided by your employer. Instead, these are marketed to individual users as a way to increase their privacy and anonymity online. And with the federal repeal of net neutrality, these VPNs are finding a new customer base, according to a survey conducted by PC Magazine.

Here's the top-line data: "We found that while fewer than a third of consumers currently use VPNs, 52 percent of respondents said they're more likely to use a VPN since net neutrality rules officially went kaput in June. More significantly, one in four respondents (26 percent) said that the net neutrality rollback directly influenced them to purchase a VPN app."

Although federal net neutrality was axed this summer, the legal erosion into your online privacy actually began in earnest in March 2017 when Congress passed a law making it easier for ISPs to sell your personal data to advertisers -- data culled in part from your online activities: what websites you visit, how often, and what times of day.

What is a VPN, and why is it more popular now?

With a virtual private network, however, the ISP can only see when and how often you connect to your VPN. The rest of your online navigation is effectively invisible to them. (As a result, VPNs are customarily forbidden by oppressive government regimes.) The VPN provides its own encrypted tunnel within your Internet connection, shielding you from nosy Internet providers.

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Meanwhile, the website that you want to visit doesn't see the IP address of your computer (which is basically the Internet version of a street address). Instead, it only sees the IP address of the VPN server that you are connecting through.

Some VPNs even provide "multi-hop," which sends your connection through multiple VPN servers before you reach your destination website. This usually makes the connection slower, but it's also that much more difficult to trace back to you.

In fact, if speed isn't that important to you when compared to privacy, you may also want to consider the Tor network, which is a free VPN-like service. Tor servers -- and their bandwidth -- are donated by the community in the interest of fighting invasive government and corporate spying.

Also, be aware that free VPNs are usually not trustworthy. We recommend paying for a subscription to a good one, or using Tor.

Meanwhile, California recently passed its own net neutrality law to take the place of the one removed at the federal level -- and it's at least as protective of consumer privacy rights. The Federal Communications Commission, which voted to repeal that federal law, quickly responded by filing a lawsuit against the state, as have several lobbyists such as the American Cable Association -- which counts Comcast among its customers.

Federal regulators and corporate lobbyists are putting legal pressure on California because its laws have a strong ripple effect across the country and beyond. With the fifth largest economy in the world, it wields potent political influence, and it's home to nearly 40 million people.

If California's net neutrality law becomes a template for other states, ISPs and their lobbyists may end up dealing with a mosaic of different regional regulations -- as a direct result of their successful bid to repeal net neutrality at the federal level.

Takeaways

  • A survey by PC Magazine indicates that the federal repeal of net neutrality has produced a spike in interest about virtual private networks (VPNs).
  • A VPN uses a private, encrypted tunnel, which in theory makes it difficult for an internet service provider (ISP) like Comcast or Charter to determine whether they can put you in the slow lane that's permitted by the repeal of the federal law.
  • California has effectively re-implemented net neutrality at the state level, but it faces legal challenges from federal regulators and ISP lobbyists.
  • Either way, using a VPN -- or the Tor network -- may be a good idea anyway, since a federal law was passed in March 2017 that made it easier for ISPs to sell your usage information to advertisers.

Also see

Tom McNamara is a Senior Editor for CNET's Download.com. He mainly covers Windows, mobile and desktop security, games, Google, streaming services, and social media. Tom was also an editor at Maximum PC and IGN, and his work has appeared on CNET, PC Gamer, MSN.com, and Salon.com. He's also unreasonably proud that he's kept the same phone for more than two years.