It seems as though more governments and ISPs are cracking down on the internet’s content and who can access it. Between temporary shutdowns such as the one experienced recently by The Pirate Bay and countries with partial (or total, if you live in North Korea) internet blackouts, free access to the net seems to be becoming a distant memory.
The first world is certainly not immune. Recently, Australia put new legislation into law that would not just allow, but require ISPs to block what their government deems to be “pirate” websites. No surprise this includes places such as The Pirate Bay, but generally any websites that are believed to be host to pirated content. It basically means if you’re hoping to torrent in Australia, you’re going to have a bad time.
But is there an alternative? Turns out there is. If you’re reading from Australia, you’ll want to have a look at some VPNs while you still can, as access to much of the internet is likely to come under jeopardy if nothing is changed with the legislature.
For everyone else, there are multiple ways to clear a path to a freer, less tyrannical net.
Join a Virtual Private Network
Whether you’re watching videos, downloading via torrent, or just browsing the net, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes. Today, many websites follow who is visiting, where they’re visiting from, and what content they’re viewing (including what they’re clicking and mousing over). Ordinarily, browsing the net under the default settings is a perfect way to surrender loads of personal data.
The most basic way to combat this (outside of not using the internet) is to get a VPN service. A VPN (Virtual Private Network) is a service you route your internet connection through. There are a number of benefits to be had by doing this, but the first and most important is keeping your traffic from prying eyes. Unlike your normal, direct connection, a VPN will encrypt your data sent and received and act as a dummy when communicating with the rest of the net.
The encryption keeps your data safe if it is somehow stolen (as it can’t be easily read), while the VPN keeps websites and other snoops from telling who is actually sending a request for information. It helps keep you just a bit more anonymous, and if you’re connecting to a public WiFi, it is invaluable (public WiFi really means anyone else can be connecting and monitoring traffic).
Websites such as Hulu and Netflix can also be fooled by using a VPN. They (and even YouTube) have geo-restricted content, which means you can’t watch anything unless you’re in the right country. One of the VPN’s special features is simply telling a website that you’re somewhere else, allowing you to bypass this restriction. It’s great if you happen to be traveling and find yourself locked out, but even better if you’re in a country with many geographic restrictions.
These services don’t come free, but they’re relatively cheap; even the best ones such as ExpressVPN typically run just under $10 a month.
Browsing Truly Anonymously
There’s no doubting how useful a VPN is for keeping you safe on the net. Certainly if you’re planning on a variety of activities, you’ll be served well by exactly that. If, however, you want access to the “rest” of the internet (because there’s a lot you haven’t seen yet), and you want to do it totally anonymous, there’s yet another piece of software to help with exactly that.
Tor (named for its original project, The Onion Router), is a service built exclusively around the idea that browsing the net should be totally free of surveillance and monitoring. With their pre-configured Tor Browser (a modified version of Firefox), you can access the internet in a completely different format than before.
Tor works simply by bouncing your encrypted connection between varying network relays around the world, at each point removing only a single layer of the encryption (like an onion); each relay only knows of the previous relay, so by the time you’ve gone through thousands of connections, no one can know exactly where your location originated. It might sound complicated, but it’s like a rumor, very hard to tell who started it.
Tor’s main downside is that it only works on the Browser you’re using; traffic on torrents and the like can still give away your location and be used to track you. It’s generally much more restricted than a VPN, but it’s main plus is in allowing you to visit websites that are invisible to users not connected through Tor. It’s also free.
Worth mentioning is a little service that used to be known as DoNotTrackMe. Because so many websites simply ask for your information when you visit them, your computer’s default response is to supply exactly that. Blur prevents that process by denying websites that information (and it’s conveniently available for multiple different platforms). It does much more than that though.
Some emails are important, important enough that we don’t want anyone else but the recipient being able to read them. Blur offers an email encryption service to stop unintended audiences from taking a look at sensitive information. If you’re running a business (or apparently a government), this can be important because many business emails contain information intended exclusively for employees (which lately hackers seem all too happy to expose).
With the growth of online shopping, keeping your payment information secure has also become a major problem. Though you may keep your passwords strong and your credit card numbers private, businesses such as Target and Sony have shown that doesn’t matter if the entire business gets hacked.
To combat this, Blur offers a secure payment service by creating one time use payments (similar to a money card) that expire after the transaction has ended. Then Blur simply bills your bank account; even if your Target account is stolen or Amazon gets hacked, it won’t matter because your payment can’t be reused.
Marketing or Surveillance?
Though restrictive governments continue to prove that internet freedom will not be maintained without a fight, it’s important to realize that there are many reasons your traffic is being watched. Some reasons are as old as business itself; someone wants to sell you something by monitoring your habits and targeting you with a product they’ve picked just for you (Google does this with email advertisements).
Others might be gathering your information to sell to companies who want to sell to you. Then there are the more malicious parties, hackers hoping to steal your accounts and identity, or just to ruin your day for their fun. Of course, there are also government agencies looking for criminal activities.
No matter the case, there’s no need to be a victim. You can take steps to safeguard your traffic, whether with a VPN, using Tor, or otherwise. Content should be available to everyone, and it can be if you’re willing to spend the time figuring it out. Even in countries where the internet has been largely suppressed, users have found ways around these state imposed barriers.
Be safe. Be anonymous.