What are VPNs?


How people in China are managing to bypass the autocratic methods of their government

In January, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology of China announced that it would make efforts to strip away from internet users the ability to bypass its national firewall, commonly known as the Great Firewall of China. In particular, it will seek to crackdown on the use of virtual private networks, known as VPNs, to access websites like Facebook and YouTube which are meant to be blocked in the country. But what are VPNs and why might you want to use one, even if you are not in China?

VPNs provide as a way to keep internet traffic protected against unwanted snoops and hackers and to also bypass censorship parameters implemented either by governments or internet and technology companies. It is not necessarily a new kind of technology; in 1996 Microsoft developed a way of creating private networks to secure internet connections for the workplace. In light of the world’s greater awareness to the dangers of the web, with hackers and snooping governments abound, the demand for data protection mechanisms has certainly risen sharply, including for VPNs.

Typically, users connect to the public internet via an internet service provider, which allows them to access to cat videos or their social media feeds. By using a VPN, however, users can connect to the public internet through a VPN server, which is accessed using certain credentials. It is similar to how users might connect to their company’s network from home, by establishing a direct connection with the company’s intranet from their device. Both the network at home, which consists of all the devices connected to their private home WiFi, and their company’s network can be connected remotely.

Connecting to a VPN server will create a point-to-point connection through which your internet traffic may travel. In doing so, the traffic is encrypted and thus can be protected against the various online adversaries that may be trying to access that data.

The use of VPNs can also allow users to access content and information which may not be typically available in their own country. This is how some people in China, when connected to private networks, are able to access sites like YouTube which would otherwise be inaccessible.

The use of VPNs, though, can even pose problems in more democratic states. For example, with the use of VPNs, public authorities in the UK may find it difficult to decipher data or internet traffic if it travels through private networks and are encrypted.

They can also be problematic for movie streaming services like Netflix. The use a VPN means people can access and watch movies and TV shows which are actually not meant to accessed in their own country. This means people can watch content on Netflix which may only available in the US almost anywhere in the world. Streaming services like Netflix though have identified some known VPN clients to avoid this from happening, by not permitting access when the use of VPNs are detected. But new VPNs are being developed and used all the time to bypass censorship on the web, making life difficult for such companies that may want to limit access to certain content.

This is how internet users in China have been attempting to bypass the massive online censorship policies in place. Even if the government attempts to crackdown on the use of VPNs, it is likely other methods will be discovered and deployed, making such campaigns more of a wild goose chase.


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