In a large, cold, immaculate room, rows of black metal cabinets shelter Internet servers whose blinking green lights indicate the frenetic pulse of our every online move, whether it's sending mundane emails, trolling online forums, messaging a lover or making online purchases.
Multiple safeguards such as handprint scanners, secure keys and a cylindrical "mantrap" chamber with interlocking doors and weight sensors protect the contents of this room, in the southwest Santa Rosa headquarters of Sonic.net.
Privacy is paramount at Sonic, Northern California's largest independent Internet provider. The company has become a national model for Internet privacy policies, even as the foreign and domestic spying tactics of the National Security Agency provoke worldwide criticism and anger.
For the past two years, Sonic has received a perfect rating from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group that for years has championed the digital rights of consumers, from free speech to protecting consumer data from the government.
When compared to Internet, telecom and tech giants like Google, Comcast, Facebook, AT&T, Verizon, Apple and a dozen others, only Sonic and Twitter have received a perfect rating for their consumer-privacy practices and policies.
"Our customers who are not criminals are our highest priority, and we believe the protection of their privacy is a serious responsibility," said Sonic co-founder and CEO Dane Jasper.
When law enforcement officers ask Sonic for information about you, Sonic asks, "Where's the warrant?"
When one is produced, the company will alert you about it, if they can do so legally — and they've gone to court to make sure they can. Sonic also publishes reports about how many court orders it receives.
Jasper said Sonic does not take part in the kind of bulk data collection that has landed the NSA in the crosshairs of Internet activists who are concerned that such surveillance activities violate the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures and requires warrants to be supported by probable cause.
"Sonic's entire business seems to be centered around respecting the consumer," said Nate Cardozo, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation on its digital civil liberties team.
Cardozo, one of the authors of EFF's annual Internet privacy report, titled "Who Has Your Back," said Sonic is an industry standard-bearer when it comes to privacy issues. He said Jasper has sometimes sought guidance, asking, "If Sonic isn't doing it exactly right, help us get it right."
Of the online service providers evaluated in EFF's report, Sonic is one of the smallest companies, born during a more competitive age than the periods that spawned telecommunications giants such as AT&T.
Sonic was started in 1994 by Jasper and co-founder Scott Doty, who devised their plan at Santa Rosa Junior College as part of a class project. It was a time when Internet service providers were starting to bring the World Wide Web to the masses with features like email, instant messaging, FTP file-downloading and virtual communities via computer bulletin board systems.
Jasper said Sonic's commitment to customer privacy is one of the things that sets it apart from its big competitors. He said that a more competitive market would give "a deterrent to providers taking customer privacy rights lightly, because customers who felt their rights were not being respected would depart."
Sonic received EFF's highest rating in both 2012 and 2013 for its actions in the preceding years. EFF's 2014 report, which will analyze companies' privacy polices and actions in 2013, is due next month, Cardozo said.