Cyberclinic: How can I keep my internet activity private?

Rhodri Marsden
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The Independent Tech

Now that the much-derided Digital Economy Bill has haphazardly bulldozed its way through the House of Lords, assisted by politicians who seem desperate to get its unworkable and frequently nonsensical contents on to the statute book before the general election, legal experts continue to look on in disbelief. Until the wretched thing becomes law, it'll be unclear if we, the public, will face punishment for riding roughshod over copyright law by, say, filming our three-year old niece dancing to a Girls Aloud record and then sticking the video online. Or whether ISPs, universities, mobile networks and the like will feel obliged to block all access to any website – such as YouTube or YouSendIt – that unwittingly hosts copyright-infringing material, lest they be sued by multinational entertainment corporations. But it could well be one of the two, so it's not surprising that the internet community is pondering ways of getting around the problem.

One enterprising company,, emailed me last week offering "anonymous and non-traceable offshore browsing" for £5 a month, or £6 if I want my email secured too. It's done via a virtual private network, or VPN; this operates over a regular internet connection, but establishes a private "tunnel" to a server – in this case in Canada – which then connects to the internet on your behalf. Web services think you're located in Canada. The VPN knows where you are but, in keeping with Canadian law, keeps no logs of your activity. Your ISP knows you're using a VPN, but has no way of knowing what you're doing with it.

VPNs have been shown to have many legitimate uses, such as connecting to your workplace remotely, or ensuring mobile connections don't drop as you move between networks. Many wireless hotspot providers recommend using them to protect your privacy, too. But VPNs can also be used to fool websites that exclude your country to relent and let you in (eg, to view American TV clips) or to fearlessly file-share (Swedish torrent site The Pirate Bay offers its own VPN, IPREDator, for €5 a month).

While slinging cash in The Pirate Bay's direction could be seen as a tacit admission that you're an anti-copyright crusader, the Digital Economy Bill as it stands will have the effect of pushing many of us onto VPNs, purely because we want to continue legitimately using internet resources without fear of interruption or disconnection. This may be news to politicians behind the bill; if so, I suppose we can expect an ill-thought-out amendment outlawing VPNs to be hastily incorporated during the Commons reading.

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