Level the Internet Playing Field

As well as completely transforming our communications and leisure time, the internet has become an important source of income for many millions of people. No longer does a budding entrepreneur need access to a wealth of specialized knowledge or capital to start up on their own. The business opportunities available online are almost limitless, unrestricted by the local restrictions that might hamper a traditional physical business.

That’s not to say there aren’t challenges depending on your situation, for example if you want to sell Amazon products you’ll be out of luck in certain US states due to the tax laws. It’s also fair to say that setting up a digital business in some countries is much harder than others for a variety of reasons. For example if you started out in China, you’d have a lot of issues based mainly on various Chinese blocks and filters which operate across the country. These can make it difficult accessing all sorts of information, sites and even advertising portals, it’s easy if you target your business on the local Chinese market in this instance.

These sort of filters operate in lots of countries to an extent, yet there is generally a more extensive problem which affects many would be entrepreneurs in many countries. The problems are usually around payment, distribution, affiliate and advertising sites which are usually essential for running an effective internet based business. If you’re selling something for example you’ll need to get paid and although there are many options for this including the leaders like Paypal – it can be difficult to obtain these services from some countries. Setting up a usable Paypal account is much more difficult in India or Nigeria for instance than it is if you’re from Europe or the USA. Sometimes it can often prove almost impossible and many businesses suffer from having to accept lesser known payment processors instead.

There is a simple way however to level the playing field slightly if you are based in one these countries, simply pretend to operate from somewhere else. A US or UK internet business suffers few of the administrative and logistical problems that you’ll find from India for example so many seek to move their digital presence here. The most important step is to hide your online location which is normally found through your IP address – here’s simple option for changing to a US IP proxy, just watch the video.

So our entrepreneur can fire up this security program and establish a VPN from the US BEFORE they start using the web. This would mean that they would appear to be physically based in the USA allowing access to all sorts of resources that may be inaccessible from their home country. The connection is simply relayed through the server based in the USA and then relayed back, if you use a fast server then your connection is virtually identical. One person I know uses a VPN like this to allow her to post adverts of sites like craigslist which would effectively be blocked without the VPN service.

Of course you will need other resources to fully switch your digital presence, however things like mailing address and prepaid US credit cards are accessible with a little work. It still is a little harder work than for someone actually located in the US but at least there are options to level the playing field slightly.

Technical Reference
James Collins, Author – Change IP Address Program, 2014

Watching the News Online

I’m a self confessed News addict, wherever I go I need to get my fix of the news everyday.  Years ago, this was very difficult when you were travelling – no radio channels (except the wonderful World Service), only local TV channels and of course no internet.   I well remember paying 10 times the cover price for a rubbish English Newspaper in a Cairo hotel in the 1980’s because I was so desperate, even then the paper was nearly a week old!

Of course this has changed greatly in the last few years, we all carry around laptops, tablets and smartphones which just need a half way decent wireless connection to access the internet.   You never really need to be completely out of touch now, even satellite connections can help in those particularly hard to reach places.   However in reality there are not many places in the world that you can’t find some sort of internet connection.   Further more most large News organisations broadcast their news bulletins online so location shouldn’t be an issue to keep up to date with your local and national news.

However, unfortunately this isn’t actually the case as you’ve probably discovered.  When I travel outside the UK, none of the UK news broadcasts are available to me because they are restricted to people only in the UK.  This is very frustrating as it’s the only time I’d actually watch the news online but I’m not allowed access.

The restriction I presume is to do with licensing agreements or more likely maximizing profits.  The restriction is basically enforced based on your IP address, that unique number you are assigned when you connect to the internet.   The BBC checks for a UK IP address, NBC checks for a US address and so on.   fortunately there is a way to circumvent this as you can see in this short video explaining how to watch the BBC News live online –

It’s ridiculous we need to do this but I’m afraid it’s increasingly how the internet works. Big businesses make money by something called price discrimination – charging different prices to different markets and to do this they need to split us all up. Using IP addresses is a way of enforcing these boundaries, and selling the same things worldwide at the maximum cost possible.

It’s not only the news, most of the big media sites restrict, block or filter based on your location. For example, my global Netflix subscription won’t work in many countries because of a lack of licensing agreements. It seems to make a huge difference if I watch Netflix in my home or in a cafe in Istanbul! Fortunately changing your IP address bypasses this restriction, too.

Further Reading:

James Greenhoff, How to Access BBC iPlayer Outside UK

Using Proxies to Bypass Blocks

For years you’d never really hear the word ‘proxies’ mentioned outside IT departments, however that’s all changed. I overheard last week, a heated discussion about the use of proxy servers between a group of retired people in a Spanish bar. This is because previously proxy servers were usually just used in large corporate networks to control access to the internet and outside resources. It was a way of funneling web requests through a single point to ensure safety and speed of an internal network. For example instead of thousands of web requests going out individually from each computer they were forwarded to one fast proxy server which could check the site was safe and appropriate for a work request.

However the use of proxies has expanded exponentially over the last few years and the demand has come from a surprising source. It has primarily driven by the rise of geo-blocking which is the practice of websites controlling and restricting access based on your physical location. So for example, the BBC iPlayer application is only available when you access from the UK – every where else you’ll get blocked including that Spanish bar! This is not a unique example though, thousands of web sites across the world check your location before determining what you can access.

This is of course, not very popular particularly as virtually every large media site on the internet operates these restrictions. From a US citizen trying to watch their local TV station while on holiday to our British ex-pats who miss the BBC from Spain – they all have been searching for a solution.

That has come in the form of proxy and VPN servers – which are used to relay your connection to make you appear to be in a country you are not. Take for example the BBC, if you route your internet connection through any UK proxies then you will appear to be in the UK irrespective of your actual location. Just watch this video for an introduction:

You can see that although using free proxies is quite difficult and time consuming, there are inexpensive commercial options that are very simple to use and require no technical knowledge at all. These usually come in a subscription service and the best ones offer a range of servers across the world. This is particularly useful as you can switch to specific countries when required. For example I wanted to watch a cricket match which was only accessible on the Australian TV site – ABC which blocked access outside the country. However the service I used has a selection of servers including an Australian proxy which I could connect through and watch ABC without restrictions.

Are You Safe – Internet Travellers

I remember a few months ago reading a computer security report conducted for a large international hotel chain. It was an assessment of the security of the various computer services that this chain provided for it’s guests. The report covered many areas, but the real headline of the document was what the security firm found on the hotel kiosk machines that were located across the hotel’s foyers.

You’ve probably seen these in many international hotels, computers at desks which for a small fee you can login to and surf the web, check your emails or sign in to your company network. However you’d be ill advised to do this on any of these computers because they were almost all riddled with malware and identity stealing software.

The infestation was shocking, the computers were all designed to steal and forward details of anyone using these computers. If you logged into webmail or any site which required a username or password these details would be forwarded to some remote server on the internet. These details would then be used by criminal cyber gangs to either steal directly or for identity theft purposes to obtain credit or goods in your name. Obviously because these were expensive international hotels, the users were often high worth individuals who conducted lots of financial transactions online.

There is a simple rule here to follow, never ever use another computer when you’re travelling particularly one which is in a public space like these lobby computers. You have absolutely no way of knowing whether they are well secured or riddled with viruses and the second option is usually the most likely.

However it doesn’t just stop there, even if you don’t use other peoples computers – it’s likely you’ll have to use someone else’s hardware. Every WI-FI access point you connect to, you are effectively trusting with your personal credentials. How much do you trust the security of that coffee shop wireless system ? They make great coffee, sure but how much do they know about securing internet access points?

Of course, you can’t do an in-depth security view of every facility before you use their internet connection and trying not to access sites which require logins whilst travelling is easier said than done. There is a solution though which can almost completely mitigate these risks from software I actually use to for BBC iPlayer Ireland, where it normally inaccessible. It’s a VPN program which routes your internet connection through a secure server whilst adding a layer of encryption. This means that even if cyber baddies are logging everything you don online through a hacked hotel access point, they won’t be able to actually see anything.

Further Reading
Informational Post – Irish IP Address