In Australia in 2014, around 200,000 people were said to be accessing Netflix. Not a huge number, you’ll agree, but it represent about 0.8% of Australia’s entire population of 25 million or so people. The reason this number is impressive, however, is that at that time Netflix was not available in Australia. Savvy Aussies were using VPNs to get access to US and UK versions of the streaming service, which didn’t officially arrive in Australia until 2015. There was a backlash against media reports of piracy, because, after all, they were using their own paid accounts.
Many readers of this site will understand what we mean by VPN blocking or geo-blocking, but for those who don’t – and without getting into the technical side of it all – it’s the process of restricting access to websites due to where a person is situated. It can impact anything from Wikipedia to Hulu, from the BBC to the LA Times.
Some reasons for geo-blocking are pretty straightforward. For example, if you have an online gambling account in Nevada, you can see why it might be problematic by accessing it in Utah, where there are strict laws against gambling. But there are arguments on the other side of things. BBC licence payers often have restrictions accessing the iPlayer when abroad. Is it fair to lock out paying customers from accounts when it is a non-commercial service?
China’s Golden Shield a tool of censorship
Obviously, there are more ethical concerns to do with freedom and censorship too. China’s wide-ranging Golden Shield Project uses – among other tactics – geo-blocking as a means of restricting access to anything the government deems unsuitable. That can range from pornography to information on the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Iran, Russia and Syria also follow suit in blocking VPN’s to control the flow of information on the internet.
For every problem, of course, somebody, somewhere comes up with a solution. Most notably, through the creation of your own VPN that allows you to bypass the block by creating a remote private network and hiding your IP address. VPN solutions are becoming more and more popular for a variety of reasons, and it is very important to compare between the VPN services, before choosing the ideal one. Many of the reasons that it became so popular are not due to reasons of location. As you will see below, security and privacy are also important factors cited by those using VPNs.
Security benefits of VPNs
Still, if you are not somewhere restrictive like China and don’t really care about accessing the likes of Netflix and Hulu from another country, what use is a VPN to you? Beyond the obvious, there are some real benefits. For example, the purchasing of flights can be cheaper in other countries, so using a VPN to do that can be beneficial for that, hotels and car rental too. It also can help avoid bandwidth throttling and offer faster connection speeds.
One, often overlooked, area is the security a VPN offers, allowing you to upload and download quickly and safely. Indeed, it also means that you can use public Wi-Fi with confidence. Good to know given the many scare stories swirling around about the dangers of using an unsecured connection.
The big question, then, is it ethical or, indeed, legal to use VPNs? In most major countries, such as the US and UK, the use of a VPN is completely legal, the issues come with what you actually use it for. In a way, the ethical questions mimic the internet itself. If you use the VPN for doing something illegal, such as downloading copyrighted material, then there is a certain gauntlet to run. But for purposes of security and privacy, you can see why using a VPN might be smart.
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