You have the right to remain private

Shanan Carney 25 Apr 2017

What is a VPN? Don't you only need one if you work from home? And what’s the FCC got to do with it? Avast has answers.

All the recent hype surrounding internet deregulation has plenty of people in a panic. But if you’re an ordinary citizen like most of us here at Avast, never fear. Many of us (not all of us are threat-detecting, code-writing geniuses, after all) are sometimes tempted to slam our laptops shut, wrap them in barbed wire, and toss them off the nearest cliff. Swear.

Take a few deep breaths, and let us explain in simple terms what’s going on and what you can do about it, ending with 5 guidelines to use when choosing a privacy solution (like a VPN connection) that's worth your time. 

Look for more articles dedicated to decoding the issues in human-speak in the coming days, as well as our previous quick-and-dirty post about the top 3 things to look for in a VPN connection

First off … what happened with the FCC?

Your internet service provider (ISP) has always been regulated by the same laws as internet entertainment companies like Facebook and Google: they can use data about what you do online however they see fit, including selling it to advertisers.

In 2015 the Obama administration created a bill, set to take effect December 2017, reclassifying ISPs as utilities, like electric or water. This would require more privacy control over ISPs. A lot of people wanted this, an understandable response to the growing insidiousness of behavioral marketing. Before both were irreversibly corrupted, the Obama administration wanted to protect net neutrality and individual privacy rights.

The Trump administration, however, recently signed a different bill into law that preemptively kills the Obama-era bill, effectively clearing away a preventive policing measure. The net result (pun intended) is that your web presence – where you go, what you do, what you watch, what you buy, and from whom – is free enterprise data to be seen, examined, bought, sold, and used to target you with marketing specifically tailored to your behavior.

Not everyone’s okay with this. Not even close. Some states are already taking measures to instill stronger internet privacy regulations, and the popular backlash against it, and related threats to net neutrality, has been considerable. You don’t have to wait for the next administration to overturn Trump, however. The power to enact your own privacy protection on the web is right at your fingertips ... today.

What is a VPN, and can it really do what legislation won’t?

A virtual private network (VPN) is the best solution for protecting yourself on the internet. Not only will it hide you from targeted advertising and marketers who collect your data every time you click or tap, but it also keeps you safe from hackers and other cyber criminals.

When you sign on to the internet through a VPN, you are still free to go wherever you like on the web, only you do so anonymously. VPNs provide a “tunnel” of protection anywhere you go. The VPN’s sole IP address hides your real IP address from anyone who might want to see what you’re up to or where you’re headed, virtually that is.

Think of a VPN as a secure line between your device and the VPN server. All your internet activity will travel that safe, private channel, and the “face” of the VPN server is all that’s visible to those you meet on your “travels.” Even if behavioral marketing doesn’t bug you, a VPN is useful if you work on your laptop or phone in public spaces like coffee shops. Instead of attaching yourself to the open airwaves of public Wi-Fi, you can get to every virtual destination via your own private cyber highway.

What to keep in mind when choosing a VPN

VPNs are in such high demand these days that you’ll find literally hundreds in the marketplace, offering varying degrees of security and usability. Here are 5 things to keep in mind as you’re looking for the one to best protect you, without interfering too much with your online life:

  1. Some VPNs hide IP addresses and encrypt traffic, while others only hide your IP address. Make sure you pick one that does both.      
  2. Because your internet activity will now travel through the VPN server that is, by a less direct route you may be faced with a slower connection speed. Choose a service that affects device performance as little as possible. Some offer free trials, so take advantage.
  3. Make sure the VPN you choose is compatible with both your desktop / laptop and mobile platform or operating system.
  4. Beware of overly generous offers. If a company offers this kind of service for free (we don't mean a free VPN trial, which is a good thing, we mean free forever), it’s likely a wolf in VPN’s clothing. As we said, VPNs are especially valuable today, meaning there are ne’er-do-wells looking to profit from that.
  5. Don’t confuse VPNs and proxies. Proxies will give you online anonymity, but they do not protect you from having your cyber travels tracked. Only VPNs can hide you and your actions completely.

Look for our next installment in this series on VPNs and the continuing fight for net neutrality, cyber privacy, and online rights.

Image: Lesly B. Juarez

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