Not all countries have the freedom on the internet that the United Kingdom provides.
Some countries, like Australia, keep portions of the internet blocked off from their citizens. Countries like China take it a step further, disallowing certain online institutions from doing business with Chinese nationals.
These restrictions can be troubling, to say the least. To begin with, they rely on the government’s constant monitoring of what a citizen does. And besides that, they also allow the government to censor opinions that they dislike. A person’s trust in the government to do this right can only go so far.
Even besides the controls of governments, major corporations are constantly using malicious website programming to collect your personal information. That information gets sold for a lot of money. It is your information, and yet you do not get to profit off of it. Why should this be allowed?
Whether you like these rules or dislike them, one thing is true in the most material sense: Limiting the internet reduces its efficiency. These limitations are arbitrary, and they can hurt businesses more than you would think. So, what is the average citizen to do against this kind of control?
VPNs Help You Stay Free 🆓️
The answer is a VPN. But what is a VPN? And what does it do? Describing a VPN is a lot easier than describing what it does. It has to do with how your computer talks to the internet.
So, to understand these things better, let’s start with some terminology.
A “VPN” is an acronym for a “virtual private network”. This means that it emulates a fake network inside your computer. Do not worry what that means. You will understand it in time.
A network is the word used to describe several systems that are able to communicate with each other. These systems can be individual programs, whole computers, or programs that act like computers.
The noun “network” can be turned into the verb “networking”—meaning turning a system that is not connected to anything into one that is.
This is the process of having a program simulate another program. The advantage of emulating a program rather than running it is that it means you can use other programs to modify the emulated program. For example, if you are emulating an operating system within an operating system (usually emulating Windows within Mac) then you can use Mac controls to edit Windows functions.
Data Centres 🗃️
One of the most important terms in internet infrastructure. A data centre is the physical place where signals are sent. These signals are sent to the data centre, which then sends signals in return.
A website is based in the data centre of the company that runs the website. When you connect to a website through the internet, your computer is networking with the physical data centre of the website.
But it does not go directly to that data centre. The internet is too big for that. Your computer must network with the nearest data centre, which will then direct your computer towards the data centre where the site you are trying to get to is located. All of this happens in milliseconds.
The word most people are familiar with in the VPN acronym. It is also the most attractive one, as it is what people seek out from a VPN. It means that no one can see what you are doing or have done.
What is a VPN? 🔎️
We now know that a VPN is a Virtual Private Network. We know that a network is a system connected to other systems. In this case, that network is virtual meaning it is emulated. It is also private.
But that is just the “What” of VPNs. Why does it do this? Well, there are a few reasons. The most common is that people do not like being spied on or controlled. That is the goal of both governmental oversight and personalized ads: To get you only knowing about certain events and products.
It also keeps you safer from viruses and other forms of harmful tracking. Many websites use ads that freely access the personal information kept in your computer. They can even leave applications behind that learn more and more about you. These data gathering techniques slow your computer down.
How Does a VPN Work? ➡️
Imagine a VPN as a filter between you and the rest of the internet. Only the information you want to see can get through. Meanwhile, nothing from your side can get through. That means if a website asks for something—like, say, your personal street address or credit card information—it will not work.
The VPN will prevent that information from being sent out. Many VPNs employ very advanced programming to make sure that your computer can never be “tricked” into releasing this info.
This is particularly meaningful when it comes to data centres. When your computer sends a signal to a data centre while looking for a website, it is pretty easy for any program built into that data centre to see where your computer sent that signal from. That means you can be tracked.
A VPN makes sure that kind of information is wiped clean before it sends a signal to anywhere. Many programs that find their way onto your computer from just normal internet use will suddenly not be able to reliably find your computer. It will be as if it does not exist.
This follows on to the methods governments use to track their citizens’ activity. Since there is no information stored in your network anymore, there is no way for a government to know it is you or your computer being used to send the signal.
Are VPNs Legal? 👀️
Once people learn about how good VPNs are at hiding online activity, the most obvious thought is this: “Couldn’t this be used to hide illicit activity? Are these programs legal?”
The short answer is yes, in the United Kingdom VPNs are legal. They are legal in most countries actually, in part because they are so hard to track and punish. But also, because they are not morally wrong.
Consider tinted windows. A police officer needs to be able to see into your car in order to make sure you are wearing your seatbelt, not drinking, and not doing anything outrageous like brandishing a weapon while behind the wheel. Hiding this information is a public safety hazard.
However, wearing sunglasses is not a public safety hazard. It is similar, and since it obscures your face it could be considered obstructive to a police officer’s ability to identify you, but the harm it prevents to you outweighs the potential (and probable) harm it causes to anyone else.
VPNs work the same way. You are protected from so much harm by using a VPN. Websites cannot track you, ads cannot be personalized to you, and hackers have far more trouble targeting you.
Yes, there are bad people who use VPNs to hide their bad activity. But the way VPNs work, they would be used by those bad people either way. When in the hands of normal people, VPNs do far more good than they do harm. This is why they are legal in practically every country.
Are VPNs Perfectly Safe? 🔐️
Obviously, nothing is “perfect”. There are two standards by which to measure the safety provided by a VPN: The first is considering what it protects you from, and the other is how safe it is on its own.
What VPNs Protect You From
Do not be fooled: As similar as they are, VPNs cannot protect you from viruses. This is because viruses usually get in and cause damage through what you download, rather than what information you send.
They can definitely help you hide from viruses, but they are not going to go into your computer and clean it of malicious files on their own. For that, you need antivirus software. Many VPNs will come with these nowadays, most due to how many people expect them to come with the VPNs.
How Safe VPNs are Themselves
It is recommended that you opt into a bigger name VPN that you know has a community around it. There are many good free VPNs, but the more obscure the VPN the more likely it is doing information gathering on you itself. This might sound outlandish, but it is actually a frequent occurrence.
There are even VPNs that openly state that they gather information on users. The reason they do this is just in case one of their users ends up using the VPN for something malicious. They want to be able to prove to any government that asks that they are not responsible for harbouring criminals.
But that is the extent to which a VPN can threaten to harm you: Either being a virus, or data gathering.
If you want privacy from corporations, governments, and hackers alike online, then a VPN is the tool you need. They can be simple to set up, as cheap as free, and great at what they do.
Just be sure to do your research beforehand so you know what VPN is right for you.