The appeal of these beasts to an ISP
, and the pitch made most heavily by the salesman, is that the caching will reduce demands on Internet bandwidth
, which is generally the ISP's largest revenue expenditure - Internet bandwidth is expensive
, and salesmen promise reductions of as much as a half or more.
The problem for the customer is that you are just at the mercy of the proxy for your web connectivity. In effect, the ISP is introducing a single point of failure into the most-used part of their network - if the proxy goes down then their support desk will be flooded by customers who have lost all web access.
(If this happens to you, your best recourse is to have an external free public proxy ready, operating on a port that isn't port 80, and configure your browser to use it - your traffic will then pass by the transparent proxy, or its layer 4 switch, which is only intercepting packets on port 80. A handy trick which I've used more than once, since, for various reasons, I'm stuck for the present with an ISP that forces the indignity of a transparent proxy on me, and it often fails.)
The advantage, in terms of bandwidth-saving, is real enough, on the supposition that a lot of customers will be visiting the same few sites. However, with the advent of more and more interactive web sites (which should be flagged as uncacheable by the proxy configuration), the evolution of various peer-to-peer protocols (which consume an ever-increasing proportion of an ISP's bandwidth) and the continuing rise in streaming Internet media, this advantage will diminish over the years to come.
One other problem, not mentioned above, is a security one. If you visit a site whose authentication is by cookie, and whose default page is authenticated, then you may either see a page left by a previous user at your ISP, or you may leave yours in the cache. For example, I've sometimes gone to http://www.everything2.com/ and seen pages that have 'belonged' to other users, from my ISP's proxy cache, and I've been told other E2 users have seen mine, including 'private' /msgs.
This is because the proxy uses the browser request and the url to tell whether a site is interactive, and shouldn't be cached, or static and should be (for example the presence of a question-mark in the url, or POST-data in the request, tells the proxy not to cache.) But if you just go to www.everything2.com, there's neither POST-data nor CGI variables after a question mark, so to the proxy the page looks like it should be cached. The way to avoid this happening (on E2) is to bookmark a node (your homenode, whatever - I use /index.pl?node=plebeian) and enter E2 there instead of the front page - the presence of the question-mark in the url is enough to tell the proxy not to cache it (assuming the proxy is configured correctly). Once you're logged in, clicking on Welcome to Everything is safe, because it will produce a url with CGI variables in it, and it won't get cached.
In fact I've seen this problem with two separate ISPs. The problem may well be that the cache settings in the proxy are incorrect, and that it will deal with cookies correctly if coaxed (though of course such delving into the details of the http headers is an ugly piece of design, necessitated by an ugly technology, somewhat akin to the way a NAT router is forced to delve into the wrong layer of the network model in order to deal properly with ftp transactions, though since http and its associates present much more of a moving target, it's likely to go wrong far more often.) Also, such technicalities may be difficult to bring to the attention of the sysadmin of a large ISP such as British Telecom's BTOpenworld, where the first line support staff have a tendency to hang up on you if you broach an issue not covered by their script system.
Further concerns, for the more paranoid, might be that the proxy's logs may provide your ISP with a very easy way of tracking your web-consumption, and (a separate issue) you can actually get transparent proxies that will insert advertising directly into the web pages you are retrieving - one example I've heard of recently, which may have been down to this, was an E2 user who found that whenever the word 'slots' came up on an E2 page, it was a link to another (unafilliated) site offering online gambling. Fortunately my ISP hasn't yet stooped so low.
Of course, transparent proxies may also be used in order to censor what webpages are available for the user to see, and I believe some organisations are already using them in this way.
Overall, and this, really, is my point, it's a technology which puts more control over the user in the hands of the ISP - and have no doubts, unless you are the executive director or a shareholder in said ISP, this is a Bad Thing - which is another reason it appeals to the larger and more commercially minded companies in the field.
By all means provide a caching proxy, make it the default, even, in the script or CD that sets up the users' web browsers, but making it 'transparent' (compulsory) is a step too far, in my view, symptomatic of the way the freedoms of the home computer user are being eroded by the concerns of big business, and I'd strongly advise anyone who has the choice to use an ISP that doesn't do this.