As Western democracies go, the United Kingdom gets poor marks for Internet freedom. The laws make it easy for the government to snoop on people. Access to some services is blocked. These restrictions compromise users’ privacy and limit their ability to view many kinds of content. The lack of privacy increases the danger that criminals can get their hands on personal financial information.
A reliable virtual private network (VPN) is a good antidote to these problems. It lets you access sites without exposing the fact to your ISP, the government, or anyone else. You can, if you want, connect to the Internet from another country without leaving home. Surfshark VPN is available in the UK.
What’s a VPN?
A virtual private network is a set of physical or virtual devices that functions as a local network. The devices are typically far apart in the physical world. When you register for VPN access, your devices are part of the network, and so is a server in a remote location. Strong encryption keeps everyone else from reading or modifying data that moves between its devices, even though it travels on the public Internet.
Businesses use VPNs to let employees securely access their networks from anywhere. Personal VPNs do the reverse, letting users access any location on the Internet without the risk of eavesdropping.
This assumes the VPN does everything right. Free and cheap services that call themselves virtual private networks don’t always provide security that deserves the name, and they may abuse the user’s trust. Some so-called VPNs are just proxies that don’t hide their users’ tracks. Always choose a service with an unblemished reputation.
Benefits of a VPN
The advantages of using a virtual private network fall into two categories: maintaining privacy and shifting the user’s apparent location. The latter might sound like just a kind of privacy, but it serves other purposes as well.
The privacy issue is especially important in the UK. The Investigatory Powers Act gives the government broad powers to spy on citizens, even if they aren’t suspected of breaking any laws. A popular name for it is the “Snoopers’ Charter.” It has survived legal challenges largely intact. The UK government has the broadest electronic surveillance powers of any country in Western Europe, and they exceed the USA’s as well. Fishing expeditions can catch up innocent people, and the tools which enable governmental surveillance could open up opportunities to criminals.
Normally your ISP can identify the sites you visit, even when you use a secure HTTPS connection. It might have to report your activity in response to a government warrant. A VPN hides that information from the ISP. How well it protects it depends on the VPN; you should choose one that has been audited for its privacy protections and has a good reputation.
Avoiding access restrictions
Access to material is another significant concern. If you go through a British ISP, you’ll have trouble accessing blocked sites and services. Some movies contractually can’t be shown in the UK, and streaming sites have to block IP addresses located there. Other sites are considered “pornographic” by law, and if they don’t require age confirmation, ISPs have to block access to them. Some of these sites provide important material which isn’t necessarily sexual in nature, but they’re completely blocked anyway.
With a VPN, you can put your apparent Internet location outside the UK. You can get around country-specific blocking and access servers as if you’re in a less restrictive country.
Minimizing ISP issues
Internet service providers have to comply with the law. They can be sued if they allow copyright violations and other questionable user behavior. Some of them are overly cautious, suspending or canceling accounts rather than fighting spurious complaints. The mere fact of using BitTorrent doesn’t mean you’re violating anyone’s copyright, but an ISP may think differently.
When all traffic goes through a VPN, the ISP doesn’t know what sites it accesses. Everything is encrypted data, with no way to determine its final destination. There’s no need to argue with the Internet service provider over the legality of your choices.
Using this technology is legal in the UK. There’s no law against using a VPN or circumventing IP address blocking. However, keep in mind that the government has many resources if you try anything seriously criminal. Don’t count on the VPN or anything else to protect you against a determined investigation.
A VPN puts you in control
When you go through a virtual private network, you decide what you can access. You aren’t bound by geographic restrictions, and the chances that anyone can observe your activity are greatly reduced.
Choose your service carefully. Having just an illusion of privacy is worse than not having it at all, and having unreliable service will drive you back to your old Internet resources. A trustworthy VPN service will guard your privacy well, have high uptime, and be easy to use. You’ll be able to use the Internet as you always have, but with greater confidence.