There is often some considerable misunderstanding when people hear the term anonymous internet surfing – it is assumed that anyone who surfs anonymously is some kind of underground internet vigilante. Sure, there are anonymous surfers like that out there (and confusingly for everyone they get pretty much all the press), but when your average computer geek talks about anonymous web surfing, what he is referring to is much more innocuous.
Every time you visit a website, you identify your computer's internet connection with an IP address, indeed so does the site you visit. These two IP addresses are rather like cyber PO Box numbers that allow you and the visited site to send packets of data back and forth between one another. There are, however a few different reasons why you might want to carry out this communication without using your real IP address, which we will look at in a moment; reasons that have nothing to do with wearing a Guy Fawkes mask and bringing down capitalism. As soon as you choose to use one of the many services available to hide your IP address, you are doing what is known as anonymous browsing. To underline how separate anonymous internet surfing is from actual anonymity, consider this. As long as your IP is different from the one assigned to you by your internet service provider you are
'surfing the web anonymously'. This is the case even if you publish photos all across Flicker of you holding your birth certificate between your teeth.
Ok, hopefully that is clear, as we will now look at why one would want to hide their IP address, and the different free anonymous web surfing services that help you do so.
Internet censorship is managed within networks, and networks are often managed geographically. Simply speaking, this means that if your country is blocking access to YouTube (as in the People's Republic of China), that block will be imposed on all computers or mobile devices that try to access the site through the national internet networks. So, someone coming over with an Android phone from America and using it in China through a Chinese network provider will of course find that YouTube is still blocked.
Well, as said already, your IP address is used as a kind of PO Box for your internet communication, and the number shows where you are in the globe. All the world's internet service providers are ascribed a range of IP addresses that correspond to the country they operate in. This means that any censor imposing restrictions across a whole country uses its nation's IP address ranges as a way of knowing who is in that country and who should be censored. This system works fine for the censors until some of the residents begin anonymous internet surfing. If you can change your IP address to one from an unrestricted country by directing your internet connection to a server based there, the censor in your country will not have you in its pool of IPs for censorship, and will not know you are accessing the censored sites. Of course censors are not stupid and they have developed measures to stop this from happening, but anonymous surfing technologies are always developing too, and they are still very effective at allowing internet users to bypass blocked sites.
In practical terms, this does not only mean you can break out of internet restrictions in your country (and unblock YouTube in China, for example); but you can also use the same method to break into internet restrictions in other countries and access content reserved just for them. Many very popular audio and visual media sites across the world are bound by distribution agreements restricting which countries can have access to their content; and usually foreigners are shut out. But nowadays many people access these sites from outside the restricted zone using anonymous surfing technologies. What is more, it is perfectly legal to do so – when one woman was taken to court recently in the UK for accessing sports channels for free from mainland Europe, the charges were overturned. The court said it would not protect the media providers beyond what their technology was already very successfully doing. This was considered a milestone in the relaxation of media copyright protection in the UK.
Nonetheless, the big video streaming sites have realized that their content is being accessed from abroad, and many of the free anonymous web surfing services are no longer able to break into them – a subscription based VPN is the only technology that still works with such sites.
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