The internet really doesn’t want you to be untraceable

Blocks

Right after I started using a VPN for all my internet traffic, so that I could remain anonymous in my browsing habits, I started having technical troubles.

It started with Amazon. I don’t shop Amazon all that much (I think they’re doing okay as it is) but sometimes I do go on there. And I couldn’t connect. My browser gave me the following error.

Amazon SSL error
Thanks for nothing, Jeff.

Then the same thing happened on certain hotel website. IHG in particular, the hotel group that contains the Holiday Inn brands, would patently not let me on anymore.

This turned out not to be just me. A little bit of internet sleuthing turned up forum posts like this:

Recently purchased a VPN product to protect My info and data as I travel nearly 250 Days of the Year in Hotels. Found out IHG blocks due to geo locations. Called up IHG support and they told Me to turn off My VPN while I make reservations and turn it back on when I’m done. Of all the places You would think a Major hotel chain should understand the importance of the guest security … Shame on them for putting guest at risk!

That’s Some serious Irony, is It Not?

When sites don’t block VPNs outright, they punish the users. Craigslist, the eternal online flea market, doesn’t block traffic so much as slow it down to be almost unusable. I once spent some time digging into my browser’s developer tools to find out what was the matter, and found that a certain script file was being loaded so slowly that I could watch the characters in the source scroll across the screen, something I haven’t seen since I had a dial-up modem in the late 1990s.

It turns out that certain companies don’t like VPNs. And I started to wonder why that should be.

Why do you hate freedom, bro?

The first answer, I think, is commercial. VPNs serve a few different primary functions. They allow you to interact online without being logged, but they also allow you to pretend like you’re somewhere else. NordVPN, the service I use, allows me to log on to the internet from dozens of countries.

NordVPN countries
Taken while writing this article.

So VPNs can be used to circumvent location restrictions. For example, video sites like Netflix and Hulu have distribution arrangements that allow for streaming content only in certain countries. People use VPNs to “virtually travel” to those countries, so they can stream freely.

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I can understand how companies want to protect against this kind of “location fraud”.

(More darkly, certain nations block VPNs to prevent users from getting non-state sponsored information. That’s a little harder to swallow.)

The other answer is to protect against attacks. A VPN, given its untraceability, can be employed by robots to direct attacks at certain websites. Blocking the addresses of VPNs can guard against that.

You are the product

But personally, I think the reason why sites block VPNs is because untraceability threatens many companies’ business models.

Remember, for most of the websites you visit, you are the product. Your browsing habits and demographic information are being logged and sold to marketing companies. Anything that gets in the way of that is deemed a problem that needs to be solved.

And so, in a twist of irony, sites’ response to VPNs showcases just how important using a VPN is. What I read, who I talk to, where I shop, etc., is no one’s concern except my own and any directly connected parties. Not the companies that put ads on websites.

Patience is a virtue

I wish I had more of a “here’s how to get around the VPN restrictions” post to offer. I don’t really. My workarounds have been a) connecting to different servers, b) trying different countries (though watch out, as Google really really doesn’t like this).

All the other workarounds I’ve found online are severely technical and a little outside of our core competencies around here.

But patience feels like a small price to pay to have one aspect of your life that’s not logged.

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