Many people use VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) for security reasons, primarily because they create a secure, encrypted tunnel across the open architecture of the internet. Many firms use them as a secure method of allowing remote users to access corporate file servers and email systems from anywhere in the world. It has to be said that if you travel for any length of time, it’s probably one of the smartest moves you can make for keeping your data secure.
However there is another use of VPNs and it’s arguably becoming the primary reason and that’s to bypass internet censorship and filtering. This is a huge problem and one that you will find exists on many levels. At a country level filtering used to be relatively rare, with only places like China, Iran and North Korea who did any serious censorship. However now there’s rarely a country in the world that doesn’t censor their internet feeds to some extent. In many countries there are literally hundreds of thousands of web pages that are not accessible due to some sort of filtering. Countries like Turkey enforce their religious beliefs by blocking all sorts of sites including women and gay rights web sites.
On another level companies and corporations are increasingly blocking access mainly as a profit maximisation technique. What happens in this case is that access is selectively restricted based on your physical location. This means you might find that parts of a web site are only accessible in particular countries and you’ll be blocked if you’re actually outside those locations. So if you’ve tried to watch Hulu from outside the US then you’ll have seen these blocks and similarly try and access the BBC from outside the UK and the same thing will happen.
Fortunately the VPN allows you to bypass both these situations both the commercial and political filtering. This is because the website you visit only sees the IP address and location of the VPN server not your real one. So if you’re connected to a VPN in the right country you can access whatever you like. Millions watch the BBC from all over the world using a simple VPN to hide their location. Unfortunately things are beginning to change and the technology war between the web site and the VPN service providers has started to escalate. Over the last few months for example the BBC have started blocking VPN connections from accessing the BBC iPlayer application.
This is significant as up until this point, the BBC have made very minimal effort to restrict the use of these programs. There is still some hope though, mainly because it is still extremely difficult to completely block access to VPNs. The Chinese after all have not yet succeeded in completely blocking them through their infamous firewall. The reality is that although many of these media companies can block access through VPNs it is actually quite a difficult process which involves a lot of manual intervention. A well configured VPN is still pretty much undetectable, so they instead focus on identifying IP addresses with multiple concurrent connections. This is very time consuming and also unreliable as often legitimate proxies in various establishments will look pretty much identical.
It means that for the moment, the VPN service is still one of the most useful internet tools especially for travelers, holiday makers and expats. The only company which has managed to block the majority of access is the media streaming giant Netflix. What this company has done is to restrict access from any server with a commercially registered IP address. This blocked a huge proportion (over 95%) of VPN services with only a few having the ability to use residential addresses. You can read about one company that has bypassed this issue here – supplying Netflix IP addresses. It is unclear whether other companies will follow suit to this method or they are simply evaluating the success of the method.