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.
Much has been spoken over what rights we have to access the internet, however it is becoming a very real issue. Whether you can log onto your Facebook account might sound a rather flippant issue with regards human rights but to many people it really is that important.
A couple of years ago I was living in Turkey, a modern, secular country with a fairly relaxed attitudes to most things. But politics change and in Turkey there is a growing power of religious parties, who have a much less relaxed view towards the internet than most of the population. There have been a series of court cases and lots of lobbying for a huge number of websites to be blocked inside the country. For example the atheist author Richard Dawkin’s website was blocked for some time (indeed I think it still is) because he published a review ridiculing a book on creationism that stated the world was a few thousand years old.
Now whatever your politics or religion, the reason so many people are keen on a secular government is that no one religion can define what you can or can’t do based on their own beliefs. The idea that a religious leader has decided that no one in Turkey should be able to access a book review is quite clearly ridiculous. But the issue can become even more complicated when you look at media sites like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. These sites are incredibly popular because they are pretty much open to everyone, people are allowed to speak their mind and say what they like. That will obviously lead to some people being offended, but can you block an entire site like this?
Facebook has been blocked in Turkey for a few weeks, I believe it was due to someone publishing some of the Muslim cartoons that caused such controversy. Fortunately it’s not blocked now, but the black list of sites blocked in Turkey grows every year – the majority due to pressures from fundamentalists in positions of power. Indeed any country which has a dubious human rights record or a reputation for suppressing free speech will always look to control the internet and social media sites specifically.
You don’t need it at the moment, but you never know when it might change so here’s a Facebook proxy method which costs nothing and works virtually anywhere –
These tools do get blocked and in somewhere like China you’ll find a lot of them don’t work or are detected. Fortunately the technology is improving on both sides, some of the latest hi tech proxies are virtually undetectable and some VPNs even pass through the Great Firewall of China too.
The problem is that the most popular sites on the internet usually are havens for free speech. You might not agree with much of what is said on them, but that’s only natural we don’t always hold the same views. Censorship of these sort of sites, will only lead further down the dark road of filtering and control that countries like China and Iran take part in. Sure there is a solution to accessing these sites and maintaining your anonymity through proxies and VPNs but not everyone will use these.
Sometimes when I look at my kids sitting for hours playing some online computer game, I start to think they really don’t appreciate the amazing resource they have at their disposal. In the mid 90’s I started to teach internet computer classes in the evenings and the adults were truly amazed at what they saw. Sure it was slow but we could look at web pages hosted thousands of miles away, we could talk to people on the other side of the planet using our keyboard and collaborate with anyone – anywhere. It was amazing what that little box – the 14.4k modem could transform your computer into – a box that could take you around the world.
It all seems fairly common place now and perhaps we’ve slightly lost sight of some of the amazing possibilities. How many of us have wasted hours just watching TV online or playing Candy Crush instead of using this resource for something better.
Of course some people actively use the internet every day for personal development. Universities and educators operate on a global level now, information can be transferred with amazing speed not just via periodicals slowly published by professional bodies. In fact it is perfectly possible for the lay person to get access to pretty much the same level of information as a graduate at a top university preparing their PHD.
What I try and do with younger children is to slowly introduce more interesting web sites and how they can incorporate them into their learning. Take for instance language skills – if you are learning a foreign language why not try and watch your favorite show in that language once in a while. It works amazingly well especially if you pick an episode you are familiar with. My eldest child watches episodes of the Simpsons on the French media site called M6 Replay for example.
The video is also accessible directly on YouTube and should be available in all locations. It should also be mentioned that there is a great education section on the BBC websites called Bitesize which covers all levels of children’s education and much of it linked directly to the UK school curriculum. Especially useful if you’re taking holidays or home schooling children.
The internet is full of such examples and possibilities, often for free to develop your skills in any area you can think of, it is a truly a wonderful resource for the children of today if we use it wisely.
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.
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.