Freedom Internet: an ISP that puts privacy first
An interview with CEO Anco Scholte ter Horst
KPN's integration of XS4ALL was one of the biggest developments on the Dutch internet scene in 2019. As well as prompting formation of an action group dedicated to 'saving' XS4ALL, the move led to creation of an ISP called Freedom Internet. The new outfit aims to win market share by majoring on privacy by design, native IPv6 and modern e-mail standards. Freedom Internet's CEO Anco Scholte ter Horst has been giving us the lowdown.
Anco Scholte ter Horst, CEO Freedom Internet
How did you get involved with Freedom Internet?
"I worked for XS4ALL from 2003 to 2005, before leaving to pursue my dream of having my own business. Since then, I've always stayed in touch with my old XS4ALL colleagues. We were a close-knit team and we still see each other at least once a year. When I heard that KPN planned to close XS4ALL, I immediately thought they were making a mistake. XS4ALL was much more than a label. It seemed such a shame to pull the plug. So, when my former workmate Kirsten Verdel started a petition to stop the closure, I got in touch to ask whether I could help."
Was it always the plan to create a new ISP?
"No, the decision wasn't taken until 19 September. That was when KPN turned down our offer for XS4ALL and announced that they weren't accepting the advice of the XS4ALL Staff Council. When they did that, we decided to press ahead with Freedom Internet. Until then, the plan had always been to keep XS4ALL going. But in the end we had to accept that is wasn't possible without KPN's cooperation."
What was the biggest challenge?
"Money. Securing the funds to take over XS4ALL wouldn't have been a problem. But financiers view a start-up in a very different light to the acquisition of a healthy going concern. Banks weren't exactly queuing up to lend us money. So we decided to try crowdfunding. And we raised 2.5 million euros inside three days! The appeal was so successful it made the national TV news. We got 55,000 signatures on the petition to save XS4ALL. Which was great, of course, but signing a petition isn't the same as putting up your hard-earned cash. Nevertheless, we decided to invite people to become founding members of the new organisation for fifty euros each. And that idea was a hit as well. In the first week, more than ten thousand people signed up." KPN recently announced that it isn't going to close XS4ALL after all. Doesn't that mean that the reasons for creating Freedom Internet no longer apply? "Absolutely not. The name is being retained, but KPN is pressing ahead with integration. XS4ALL will be run by KPN people and supported by KPN technology. And it won't have a Staff Council any more. I don't think consumers are fooled, though. Just look at the NPS scores: they're going steadily down after being consistently high when XS4ALL was independent. People recognise that everything XS4ALL stood for is disappearing."
What makes Freedom Internet different from other ISPs?
"We operate on the basis of distinctive principles. Crucially, we're committed to providing good support. We don't use an external call centre; we run our own helpdesk. And, when you call for help, you always get someone with real expertise. The fact that we're independent is important too. We don't have to toe anyone else's line and we're free to speak out on issues such as citizens' rights and privacy. Our profits will go to a foundation that can use the funds to support the internet community with open-source projects and other initiatives. Finally, we believe in privacy by design. Most ISPs see privacy as a compliance issue: their only real interest is staying within the law. For us, it's fundamental to the way we work."
How will the services you offer reflect that?
"Naturally, we'll be offering a conventional calls, TV and internet package. But we're also looking at things such as a VPN and password manager as standard. However, the details won't be clarified until we get started in March."
There have been reports in the press about 'snooper-proof e-mail addresses’. Can you tell us any more?
"Snooper-proof e-mail is an example of privacy by design. If you use an e-mail address provided by us, we'll make sure that no one else can read your mail. E-mail ought to be secure. There should be no possibility of abuse, even by the service provider's own personnel. Modern standards such as native IPv6, DNSSEC and the various e-mail security standards are must-haves in our book. We really don't get why other ISPs have been dragging their heels on adoption. We did even consider becoming the Netherlands' first IPv6-only provider. But the idea turned out to be unworkable, sadly. There are still too many websites and devices that only work with IPv4. Ironically, one of the challenges we face is getting hold of enough IPv4 addresses."
How close are you to launching?
"We're working round the clock to connect out first customers in March. We've got a support team and a development team in place. And the official launch party is scheduled for 29 March in Paradiso. Our aim is to have 25,000 customers by the end of the year. That's the figure we need to operate profitably and support further growth."