Whenever you connect to the internet, your physical location makes a big difference to your experience. For example when you use a search engine like Bing or Google have you ever noticed how it brings you in answers that are relevant to your location. So if you typed in local plumbers you won’t get a list from the other side of the world or a completely different continent. Search engines tailor your results to your physical location and lots of other sites do exactly the same.
The reason is that the search engine has looked up your location when you connected, then provided results based on that location. Mostly this is a positive experience because it brings you useful results that are based in your area. The locations are not always perfect but generally they do a reasonable job. However increasingly this technique is being used for other purposes which are perhaps not quite as beneficial. For example many sites will redirect users to different prices depending on their location – so you may pay more (or less) depending on your physical location.
So How Does This Happen?
Well basically when you connect to any web site, you make a direct connection from your PC to the web server hosting the site. This allows the web server to access your IP address, which is tied individually to your computer uniquely. This address can be looked up using a big database to see where it is located. Now at this stage the IP address won’t give your exact location and address (although it can be used for this), just your specific location based on your ISP.
So for a search engine this is generally fine, after all it’s unlikely you want results based on Japan if you live in London. Where it gets annoying is when you get blocked or rerouted simply because of your location by other websites. For example if you’ve ever had that message on Youtube – ‘not available in your country’, or been blocked from watching something on Hulu or BBC iPlayer because you’re in the wrong country.
How Anyone Can Change Your Virtual Location
This is when it’s best to take control of your digital location and make it work for your. Here’s an example of how someone is hiding their real IP address so they can watch BBC Iplayer abroad by switching to a UK IP Address such as this.
What they are doing is actually hiding their real location from the website they are visiting and instead relaying the connection through another server (proxies). This means that the website only sees the location of the proxy server rather than yours, when you additionally use software with the ability to switch proxies it means you can change your location at will. Not only does it keep your own location and identity private, it also gives you the possibility of choosing a new one. If you connect to a proxy in a specific country then you’ll appear to be located in the same place. It’s great for all sorts of online activities, many millions for example use this technique to watch all the free UK TV that’s available online if you’re located in the UK.
It’s also much more secure to relay your connection through another trusted server, as well as allowing you hide your location it also means you can encrypt your connection too. Using the right tools, you can bounce your connection through something like a secure Russian server like this, without affecting performance and ensuring nobody can access any of your data. The encryption means that no-one can intercept your data when it traverses across the internet (using all the shared hardware that’s needed). It’s vitally important to use some sort of encryption if you’re connecting using someone else’s internet access point. Your data is especially vulnerable in these situations and cyber criminals often target places like coffee shops, hotels and airports to steal credentials of people using their free but often insecure wifi.
In the early days of the web, everything was pretty much free and accessible to all. To some extent this is still the case, at least in many sectors but things are starting to change rapidly. There are growing examples that instead of a huge repository of knowledge the internet is rapidly morphing into a huge virtual shopping mall. What’s worse it seems that many of these Malls have strict entrance restrictions – you can only come in if you’re from the US, or using a certain browser etc. There is a huge branch of ’restrictive technology’ being developed simply to block, censor and filter websites.
Education is one of those areas that is bucking this trend, at least for now. Online classrooms and virtual lessons are appearing over the internet, sponsored by educational establishments across the world. At the moment you can even sign on for free at a class run from Harvard, Princetown or Cambridge University in the UK. World class education, for free available to anyone without restriction – well for the moment anyway. It is believed that this model won’t stay in this altruistic mode for long, but at least we can enjoy it while it does.
It is difficult to see who is to blame, but certainly the free market and profit incentive looks at the core of this change. We are increasingly seeing profit maximising models being applied to some of the best sites on the web. One of the easiest to spot is the price discrimination techniques adopted by many of the webs biggest media sites. This is an economic technique designed to maximise profits and involves charging different prices to different markets. In the real world this is fairly easy as you can use geographical boundaries, a company will charge one price for it’s goods in India, then a higher price in Europe where there is more money available.
With the internet this is more difficult to operate as we are all connected to the ’same internet’ irrespective of our location. But the media companies have implemented special technology called geotargeting which does split the market. The website basically determines your location from your IP address, and then you are offered different products and prices dependent on this. For example the media streaming company Netflix operates globally but has a host of different services tailored to different countries. You can watch Netflix in Canada and have a completely different set of media than in the US. Incidentally you can bypass these blocks and to some extent control your own internet connection – see this website for details – or watch this video if you prefer.
It basically involves hiding your real location and supplying a false one as required. You don’t actually change your location but use an alternative one by routing your connection through a proxy like this. This enables you to maintain some anonymity and also bypass any geo-restrictions being applied to a site. So for example if you want to watch British TV stations online you’d choose a proxy server based in the UK.
Hopefully education will be the exception to this profit maximising model that seems to be determining the future of the net. It is difficult to see how the vast investment required to supply these resources can be raised without the profit motive though. Both the technology involved in producing proxies and trying to block them is largely linked to maximizing revenue. Even usually altruistic companies like the BBC have started blocking VPNs and proxies in order to promote their commercial alternatives such as BritBox.
I am often surprised about the computer games my children play. For one I would have expected them mostly to be playing games with amazing graphics, immersive sounds and digitized soundtracks. Instead many parents are peering over their children’s shoulders and seeing a game that looks like it has a 1980s graphics engine behind it. I’m talking about a game called Minecraft that many of our children are completely obsessed with.
It’s a building game, using blocks and to say it wouldn’t look out of place on a Sinclair Spectrum is not really exaggerating. The game involves creating structures and houses, places to live, places to admire and of course places to defend from zombie attacks. It’s a huge virtual world consisting of lots of different basic materials like sand, wood, metals etc. You can use these raw materials as building blocks or refine them to make other materials for constructing.
Minecraft now is a phenomenon, a game that has risen in popularity almost everywhere on the planet. The numbers playing this quirky construction game are now over 33 million – mainly boys aged 9 -16 (of course not exclusively male but the vast majority are).
But for those of us who have Minecraft obsessed kids there is hope, you see it’s supposedly educational. The game is thought to be an excellent introduction to computer programming as it can be customised using custom code written by users. Even navigating throughout the world involves inputting codes and instructions on a command line using it’s own built in operating system.
Schools everywhere are starting to use Minecraft as an inexpensive teaching resource. In the UK, the Ordnance Survey have just completed a complete map of the United Kingdom using Minecraft again available for educational use. You can download the map for free although you’ll need a computer with about 4Gb worth of disk space and plenty of RAM to run it properly. There was a TV program about this project in the BBC last week – which you should be able to access using BBC iPlayer and a British IP address. Here’s a web page explaining the process if you need help.
Simply put many of the skills children use when playing Minecraft are easily transferable into the world of IT and computers. It’s one game we probably should be encouraging our children to play more often. There’s certainly much more educational value and possibilities than many of the other online games. There’s now even an educational version which you can find here – Homepage | Minecraft: Education Edition which teaches players to code in Python. The other modules are related to other subjects and educational concepts across various disciplines. What’s more the program doesn’t need a high powered PC or games console to run on. The platform even has a version that will work on devices like Chromebooks which make it ideal to use in schools and classrooms all over the world.
There’s no end to the educational possibilities across all sorts of subject areas. There are obvious ones of course which are computer related using modules to teach programming or networking concepts like using proxies and routers. Although one of the biggest successes has been to use Minecraft in subjects like geography creating simulations of different countries and geographical features which can be explored and examined by children.
When I was young, computer technology wasn’t really taught properly in schools. There were many problems but one of the most fundamental was there was no-one able to teach the subject. Computer classes were usually ended up the responsibility of the maths teacher presumably because that was the closest subject they could find. There was little chance of learning much, when your teacher knows slightly less about the subject that you do.
Certainly there was little hope of learning any real computer skills, but at least we got the chance of some exposure at a subject that was very, very new (yes I am that old!). It wasn’t until Advanced level that I actually learnt anything about computers within the education system but by that time most of us had learnt plenty from computer clubs and magazines. In fact you’ll probably find that most older people in IT are largely self-taught, it was the only real way to learn.
In the UK even now some 30 years later there is a problem with the way which our schools teach computer technology. In my son’s school for example a moderately successful comprehensive, there is not a single teacher capable of teaching any level of computer programming. Just like many years ago the ICT curriculum is dominated by word processing, DTP, spreadsheets and databases. In reality, the latter two are largely ignored too with pupils spending hours producing simple posters, documents or graphics. Oh and of course the dreaded – internet research skills.
There is no mention of networks, of coding or how computers actually work and communicate with each other. None of the teachers are qualified or seem to have the skills in these areas. The skills they are taught are useful to a point but they do seem to be focussed on secretarial rather than developing real valuable computer skills with a real world value.
It’s not the teachers fault of course, if you look at the curriculum there is simply no need to teach pupils the fundamentals of programming for instance. It’s very heavily weighted to producing posters and documents, skills that my generation just picked up as they went along. There’s really little point spending weeks on end producing documents in order to justify an ICT slot in school. Our children could be walking out of school at 16 with Java, Networking or HTML design skills instead they know how to type a document and make a newsletter.
I recently tried to explain to a group of kids how I was able to watch British TV online when I was on holiday using a proxy server. None of them had even the slightest idea how these devices communicate and certainly not how a proxy could relay my connection through the UK. If you’re missing the BBC when abroad by the way – then check this site out British TV Online.
They were interested and engaged but you could tell they had no real knowledge in the area. The only ones who seemed to have any networking knowledge at all was those who’d spent some time getting their games to work well. Reducing the ping, lag and latency in Call of Duty seemed to be the primary driver for learning about how networks communicate. In some senses this is not important, the driver behind the desire for knowledge can really be anything. If you want to speed up your gameplay or watch Match of the Day online from the US, you’ll need to learn some networking concepts.
There needs to be a real change in how we teach technology in our schools, our current approach is just not going to cut it in the modern world. I’m sure Chinese kids won’t be walking out of school with a few posters and a basic insight in how to use Microsoft Word.