The UK is one of the countries in which online surveillance is severe and although freedom and tolerance are highly regarded by its citizens, these values have been severely compromised over the last few years. Apart from extensive monitoring carried out by government organizations, users in the UK have to face blocks imposed by ISPs and laws that prevent access not only to websites involved in online piracy, but also to other content. Users in the UK can opt for a VPN as a way to defend their privacy and enhance their protection against snoopers. It also serves as a tool to avoid online censorship and since the UK is home to some of the most popular broadcasters (BBC, Channel 4), it is also a good solution for those who live abroad and wish to access this content.
Investigatory Powers Bill
The Investigatory Powers Bill intends to give a legal framework and somehow, make official the surveillance activities that were already being carried before the Snowden’s revelations. The legislation (which was worryingly led by the now UK’s Prime Minister Theresa May) intends to grant the government greater control over citizen’s privacy. Under the bill, ISPs will be required to maintain records of every customers’ internet activity for at least 12 months.
It is important to keep in mind that UK based VPN providers like HideMyAss have to keep logs and if asked, they would have no choice but to hand over information to the authorities. With the legislation, the UK government would gain further powers to perform mass surveillance. The Bill gives the government the legal right to spy on data that is passing through fibre-optic cables that enter and exit the UK, which is something that was already happening behind closed doors.
Authorities, government agencies and security organizations will not require a warrant in order to access stored logs. This power would be granted to an extensive list of bodies including the Postal Services Commission, the Department of health and HM Revenue and Customs.
UK companies and international companies based in the UK, would be obliged to cooperate in the decryption of users’ data. They will be expected to comply with the government’s requirements whenever possible. This suggests that under pressure from the UK government, tech companies are likely to introduce backdoors into their products to facilitate access for the authorities. In fact, there is a section in the Bill that states that revealing the existence of these backdoors would be considered as a criminal offense.
The bill is a serious threat to privacy and civil liberties and while it is not yet in force, it is likely to be adopted, even if some campaigners are hopeful that it could be stopped by a ruling from the European Court. However, following Britain’s decision to leave the EU, it is unclear what would happen in this regard.
Apart from strict and extended online surveillance. there are other concerns that affect online freedom in the UK. Pressure has lead ISPs to implement “porn filters”, which intend to prevent minors from accessing adult content websites. However, these filters are in place by default by new customers and they can even affect websites that are not related to porn. Due to certain keywords, even websites that give assistance to children, as well as rape and sexual abuse help centres and domestic abuse helplines have been blocked by some providers.
Some providers like BT has implemented blocks that target other categories besides porn. For instance, they give parents the possibility of restricting access to websites that contain information about drugs, alcohol, gambling, games, social networking sites, file sharing and more. While this blocks are intended to protect children from content that may be inappropriate or to ensure that they focus on their homework, the censorship can cover a wide selection of themes and controlling parents could even end up block educational websites or access to information that could give older children a broader perspective about the world.
Online piracy is severely targeted and the government is willing to follow the demands from copyright enforcement agencies. As a result, a large number of websites have been taken down or blocked in the UK. Additionally, under the Digital Economy Bill which is set to be introduced in the near future, the maximum penalty for online copyright infringement will be increased from 2 to 10 years in prison. While the government insists that this penalty would only be imposed on repeat offenders who are found guilty of piracy on a large commercial scale, the fact that ISPs are required to keep logs of customers’for a minimum of 12 months, raises concern.
VPN Protection and Flexibility
With a VPN, customers can protect their online traffic, keeping their activities covered from their ISP, the government and other prying eyes. Connecting to a server outside the UK, will allow you to bypass the filters placed by ISPs. If you intend to use P2P applications, it is advisable to opt for servers in places like the Netherlands and Romania. They are close enough to the UK to ensure good speeds and the approach towards copyright when it comes to personal use is not as strict.
Using a VPN is also a solution for those who live outside the UK but who want to access content from BBC iPlayer. While the broadcasting company has taken steps to prevent users from accessing their online streaming application abroad and VPNs are being blocked as a result, there are still some services that have managed to defeat these blocks.
If you don’t live in the UK but want to enjoy content from the BBC iPlayer and other UK-based services, you can connect to a server in the UK.
Operating from Panama, NordVPN is one of the top VPN choices for customers who want high levels of privacy. Apart from being away from the influence of the Five Eyes spying alliance, they offer advanced privacy options such as Tor over VPN. They accept Bitcoin as a method of payment and offer top level security.
Hungarian provider Buffered is another great alternative for customers in the UK who wish to protect their data from the invasive monitoring carried out by the government. It also offers users outside the UK, the possibility of accessing content that is only available there. Three simultaneous connections are supported and they have a 30-day money back guarantee, although it comes with strict conditions.
PureVPN has an impressive selection of locations, convenient software and features that will allow you to bypass censorship and and protect your online traffic. They have servers in 141 countries at this time and their streaming buffering service is ideal for customers who want to access content from applications like BBC iPlayer and other services.
You can enjoy remarkable speeds and reliability from IPVanish, a well-established provider that supports a large selection of servers in the UK and across the world. The main downside of IPVanish may be the fact that it is based in the United States. However, it promises not to keep logs and the level of encryption available is quite high.