Online ads and privacy

I’m getting pretty tired of how pop-up and “personalized” ads are ruining the Internet browsing experience. If I shop for a chair on one website, I see ads for chairs on every other website for weeks afterward. And the fact that those ads are served more or less in real time means that websites take forever to load, particularly on a slower device like an iPad. Pages keep shifting around until the slowest ad server in the chain are finished, and it makes some sites impossible to read. Or at best irritating.

One solution for this is a VPN, or virtual private network. I know a bit about VPNs – I was the CTO for an SAIC-backed business VPN startup in the 2001-2002 timeframe. Back then VPNs were rare and mysterious, but now they’re everywhere.

A VPN uses cryptography to establish an encrypted connection between your device (the client) and a matching server elsewhere in the world. All your Internet traffic is then encrypted and routed to the VPN service provider’s network/server instead of your ISP’s server. Most VPN services today have multiple server sites (their network), so one day your apparent location is Stockholm, the next day it might be Kansas City, and another day it might be London. Your IP address and location (which is defined as the location of the server’s IP address) change depending on which physical site the VPN service chooses to decrypt and route your traffic. Ad servers can’t see who and where you are, so their “personalization” algorithms are defeated.

So I’m looking for the best VPN solution for home use. Right now I’m leaning toward Express VPN.

There are a few unknowns in adopting a VPN these days. One is what effect it will have on streaming – will my Roku devices streaming things like Netflix and Amazon still work. Another is video conferencing, previously a small issue, but post-pandemic, a big issue. MS Teams and Zoom need to work. And I wouldn’t put it past MS to intentionally muck up any non-MS VPN approach.

Uncertainties aside, I really think it’s time for people (that would be me) to push back against the Facebook-Amazon-Google unholy trinity of data and identity sharing that drives the online ad business.