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.