Google and Apple have both proposed technologies aimed at hiding your IP address in the name of safety and security. What they’re not telling you is that IP cloaking threatens to undermine tools designed to help keep children safe online.
Through Google’s Gnatcatcher and Apple’s Private Relay, the tech giants are planning on concealing your IP address by routing all traffic through their servers. This means that users will no longer interact directly with the websites they are accessing, and instead access via middlemen in the form of Google and Apple. This has a number of privacy and security implications, breaking functionalities many are used to when online, and making the internet less secure for website owners and users.
Movement for an Open Web has produced an in-depth briefing paper on the full consequences of IP cloaking, which you can read in further detail here.
Why does cloaking your IP address make the internet less safe for children? Internet service providers (ISPs) and home routers can be configured to limit what pages can be accessed. This helps to protect children from malicious content online and helps preventing personal data from being collected from children under the age of 13, as required by the US’ Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) – which Google was found guilty of violating in 2019.
By routing all data through Google and Apple servers, ISPs – as well as home and office routers – would be prevented from knowing the real source and destination IP addresses for the traffic. This puts compliance with COPPA in jeopardy, and breaks the technology around content filtering. Simply, it’s a bad move for keeping kids and office workers safe online.
Aside from impairing content filtering, cloaking IP addresses causes a litany of other problems. It makes difficult for websites to block suspicious IP addresses in order to prevent spam, hacking attempts and to protect their users. It also prevents law enforcement from accessing information from ISPs on IP addresses in the process of criminal investigations, stalling counter-terrorist enforcement amongst other investigations.
From a competition perspective, IP cloaking is a nightmare for smaller companies. Any company that uses IP addresses for a better user experience would also be severely compromised. From allowing a search of ‘restaurant’ to pull up relevant local restaurants, to the ability to use IP addresses for content personalisation, advertising and analytics, many convenient and familiar functionalities of the internet would simply not work.
By taking away this critical data, Google & Apple threaten to make us less safe and kill off competition in one fell swoop. Google & Apple know the actual identity of people via browser login, email and other forms of gatekeeping, whilst restricting the innocuous identifiers relied on by competitors. Google and Apple’s sizeable leverage over data and information would only be made more powerful by IP cloaking, driving everyone – from ISPs to law enforcement to ad tech companies – to rely on big tech’s data hoard.
Google’s Gnatcatcher and Apple’s Private Relay throw up all kinds of issues in the name of solving a problem that isn’t really there, threatening to give full control of Internet traffic exclusively to Apple and Google, tanking competition and making us less secure in the process. Simply put, IP cloaking is an unambiguous disaster.