Yesterday I decided to leave the walled garden that UK Internet access is becoming. I went to the website of a VPN provider in another country (I chose Air VPN, an Italian company) and signed up for a one-year subscription which cost me €54.
Censorship and surveillance in the UK
Why would I do this? It was prompted by two factors which are happening today and affecting use of the Internet in the UK. It is disappointing to reach a stage where I feel an action like this is necessary for a UK citizen, however I feel it has come to that now because of two things, which have been on the way for a while and look like continuing for the foreseeable future.
It is one thing to know in an abstract sense that people living in repressive foreign countries may have to resort to measures like this in order to communicate freely and access information without being routinely monitored by their government, it is more of a shock to the system to find yourself in that position, needing to defend your freedom and privacy by direct action to avoid State-dictated intrusion.
Web site blocking, sad to say, is a reality today in the UK. It started quite a while ago, with the introduction by British Telecom of their “Cleanfeed” blocking system. It’s always been difficult to argue against that, because of the nature of what’s being blocked, although Bill Thompson writing in 2004 made a creditable try at doing so. About the most that you could say against the proposals were that once a system like that was in place, it would inevitably be used against other types of website sooner or later, and to wonder how often incorrect additions to the block list were made.
But… those arguments never stood a chance, because the first could be countered by claiming that it would never be used except for the most extreme illegal sites (impossible to dispute at the time, as the response would always be that it would never be extended to anything else), and the second was impossible for anyone to check because the list was secret, and even if you knew one to try, it would be a foolish thing to attempt as simple possession of such images is an offence in the UK, regardless of how or why you came by them.
So it was no surprise the system came into use, and for the most part no-one knew what was being blocked anyway except occasionally such as when Wikipedia access from the UK was restricted for a few days because an image on the article about the Scorpions 1976 album Virgin Killer was deemed illegal by the Internet Watch Foundaton (IWF) and blocked by internet providers. And it wasn’t just the image that was blocked, as it also apparently blocked the entire article, and other access such as the ability to edit Wikipedia at all from the UK, for a few days until the IWF backed down and the image was deemed not illegal after all.
Now, however, the stakes have been raised much higher. Private organisations such as the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) have recently been to UK courts and succeeded in gaining court orders for internet providers to block certain sites which the BPI and related organizations consider to be encouraging or abetting people downloading unlicensed copyright material.
So far that has been done for two sites, Newzbin 2, and now also The Pirate Bay, and if you try to follow either of the preceding links from a UK internet connection, you are likely to find that it’s blocked for you. These sites are not in themselves illegal to access in the UK, and while I don’t know so much about Newzbin, never having used it, the Pirate Bay contains links (they do not hold any content themselves) to much material which is definitely legitimate (e.g. self-promotion by independent artists), as well as links which may lead to infringing content (though it’s not always easy to tell, and could vary depending on where you are located).
In any case, whatever the merits or otherwise of Newzbin and the Pirate Bay, the extension of site-blocking like this I believe to be the wrong decision, and the wrong way to deal with a changing world in which copyright may not be enforceable the way it was with physical media in the 20th century (and that it may not even be desirable to try). It means that we really are in a walled garden now, and that further sites could be blocked in future, on very different grounds from what was originally put in place with the creation of Cleanfeed and the Internet Watch Foundation.
So this is one half of the reason why I signed up to AirVPN yesterday. I don’t have much desire to use Newzbin or the Pirate Bay, but I cannot tell what site or sites will be blocked next, and I refuse to live in a walled garden so I will do whatever I have to do in order to be able to access an open and free internet. Criminals and criminal activity can and should be pursued as necessary, in the UK and abroad, but site-blocking like this does not achieve that and is not tolerable in a free society.
The second half of why I signed up to a VPN provider is that there are proposals by the UK government to introduce routine monitoring of all internet activity, requiring ISPs to do the donkey work of actually tracking it. Something like this was proposed by the last Labour government, and scrapped after controversy, but something very like it has resurfaced under the current coalition government, in the 2012 Queen’s Speech. They may talk of “strict safeguards to protect the public” but this is not very convincing based on past experience of government promises; and I do not accept the need for the routine monitoring of all internet activity like this. I assert that monitoring proposals like this (as described here, in the Guardian) would be in breach of Article 8 (respect for private and family life), Article 9 (freedom of thought, conscience, and religion), and Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Therefore I am not waiting for the current UK proposals to be enacted, and have started using a VPN provider outside the UK for all my routine internet activity. This encrypts all my communications, so that my Internet service provider can not collude with government in recording all my activity, whatever legislation is passed to the effect that they should. There are some other benefits and a few drawbacks to doing this, which I describe at the bottom of this post.
Doing this to avoid state censorship and surveillance is civil disobedience, though as far as I know signing up to a foreign VPN provider is still perfectly legal (at the time of writing) as the UK court orders blocking websites apply to Internet service providers, and not to individual UK citizens such as myself. There is no doubt however that by deciding to avoid it myself anyway, and telling others how to do the same, I am saying that I do not accept the court’s authority to impose general web blocking of foreign sites like this. I will avoid any such block anyway (whatever the ISPs do), and I will also tell other UK citizens how to do the same.
Similarly, I do not accept that any UK government has the authority to impose routine monitoring of all internet activity as proposed, as they would breach fundamental principles of our open society, and I will avoid any such measures, and I will also tell other UK citizens how to do the same, before or after they are enacted. I hope that we can stop them, partly by showing them to be unworkable by such measures, and that I won’t ever be made a criminal for asserting my freedom to communicate privately; but I won’t walk away from it either.
I did not ever particularly want to be an Internet activist, or to have to do stuff like this in the United Kingdom; but if it is necessary then it’s necessary, and we only keep our free society if we are willing to defend it. I will also continue to support other organizations which are trying to do something about these issues, such as the UK Pirate Party who have recently been hosting a proxy which allows access from the UK to the Pirate Bay. I do not know whether the party will be forced to take that down at some point, but it is possible that could happen. In any case as a member from the start in the UK and currently being active in the party as a party governor I will continue to support the political effort being made.
On getting and using a VPN provider
There are advantages and disadvantages to using a foreign VPN provider as I have now started to do, and while I recommend it as one way to help address the current threats to our freedoms from UK authorities, I also suggest that you do your own research and choose a provider suitable for your needs, as the service offered by different companies varies wildly. You can find some discussion of different providers here.
I also strongly advise that you do not attempt to use VPN anonymising services to do anything wrongful or illegal now or in future. The only possible exception I can think of is if future legislation or court decisions made the mere use of technology like this to protect your privacy and freedom of expression a matter of suspicion or a crime. In that case you would have to decide whether you were willing to comply with the directive, and allow your traffic to be monitored, whether you would carry on using privacy measures and try to avoid the radar, or whether you would continue to use the technology openly and assert that you are not doing anything wrongful (and take your lumps then if they come). I know which I will choose; your decision is one only you can make.
The advantages and disadvantages I have found from the VPN in actual use so far are
- Your internet service provider cannot easily tell what the traffic you are sending or receiving is, or what websites you are accessing. Therefore they cannot track those, even if the government wants them to, although they will be able to see that you are using a proxy, and what your total bandwidth usage is. Bear in mind, however, that the websites you are accessing may be able to tell who you are, if you give them identifying
information such as by logging in, or through cookies.
- Similarly, anyone else on the same network as you cannot easily see any of your traffic either. This is quite useful if you are using services out and about, such as public wi-fi, or internet service in a hotel, as it means that local provider such as the pub or hotel, or any wi-fi snoopers around cannot read any of your traffic either. In this regard it acts
as an additional security measure, alongside anti-virus or firewall protections you may be using. For some people this reason by itself is enough to want a VPN facility available.
- You can choose (depending on your VPN service) when you log on from where in the world you want to appear from, to any websites you access during the session. This can be quite useful, as the website cannot tell where you are except for what you want to tell it, and you may be able to access sites which would otherwise say that you are coming from the wrong country. For example, if you are abroad and want to access BBC services such as Iplayer, you can proxy back through to the UK and it will still work, similarly you can appear as if you are within the USA or other countries which can sometimes be helpful.
- It’s an extra thing you have to have setup on your computer, and although it’s not very difficult it’s an extra step when you want to use the internet.
- You might have to pay something to get a service that suits you. There could be free ones out there, but maybe you are better off to just pay a modest price for a decent service.
- You are putting a lot of trust in the provider you choose, because they can track what you do if they want (even if they say they don’t). So you have to decide which is the lesser evil, and be careful about who you sign up with (as far as you can, anyway). Some providers may be more trustworthy than others, so you need to do your research before choosing one.
- Your Internet access will be slower than without the VPN, as although it normally all works seamlessly and you aren’t really aware anything’s different, everything you send or receive has to be encrypted and sent to and from the VPN proxy you are using. So you will never get quite the same speed as you would with an unencrypted connection working through your local Internet service provider.