You can't trip over a webpage or a YouTube video — or even live TV — without seeing some kind of advertisement for a VPN . That's short for "Virtual Private Network." And if you've spent any amount of time in any sort of corporate environment, there's a good chance you've already had to use one.
But what about for cordcutting? One of the major contexts in which VPNs are mentioned has to do with streaming video.
But do you really need a VPN to stream? The answer to that is pretty simple, if not exactly conclusive — it depends.
What is a VPN in the first place?
Put simply, a VPN is a method by which your internet traffic gets funneled (or tunneled) through a specific set of servers.
This can be done for myriad reasons. In an office environment, it's generally done to ensure that only approved traffic can hit your company's network. You get a username and a password, and you log in to the company VPN. From that point on all your internet traffic gets sent through the company server, which lets the company know that you must have legitimate access because you have that username and password, so you must be OK.
Not going through the company VPN? You can't get to the company's sensitive bits.
There's also a lot of talk about using VPNs for other security reasons, like when you're on a public Wifi network. And that's absolutely true. If all your bits are being sent over that open network, it's possible for someone to intercept them and learn all kinds of things.
Fortunately that's less of an issue than it used to be, thanks to the standardization of basic encryption. Even if you're on a public network, much of the information flowing between your computer (or phone or whatever) and whatever server you're talking to likely already is encrypted in transport. That doesn't mean it's still not a good idea to avoid public access points, or to use a VPN if you must be on one. But it also doesn't mean you're going to immediately give up all your secrets just because you typed something.
We haven't mentioned privacy yet — and really that's a function of everything you've read here so far. Maybe you don't want your Internet Service Provider to have quite so much information about the websites you visit. Or maybe you want to obfuscate your location, to confuse advertising trackers, or just to avoid The Man. And we're not even talking about illegal endeavors here — there's nothing illegitimate about the desire for privacy and anonymity.
One important caveat here: You're going to need to be able to trust your VPN provider, of course. If you're routing all your internet traffic through, say, AWESOMEvpn instead of Comcast or Cox or whomever, you're just putting all your eggs in a different basket. So you'll want to do some homework.
And that brings us to our purpose here: When it comes to online video, we're mostly talking about using VPNs to shape where it appears our traffic is coming from. So it will look like we're watching video from one country, when really we're in a different country.
OK — then why would I want to use a VPN to watch video?
This comes down to the two things we always get back to: Money, and lawyers. Video distribution rights are complicated, and what's available one place isn't always available in another place.
Generally speaking, this isn't something those of us in the United States have had to deal with all that much, because the vast majority of what we want to watch originated here in the first place. It's pretty rare to be in Peoria and see a big "THIS CONTENT IS NOT AVAILABLE IN YOUR REGION" message.
But it's a real problem other places, for all kinds of reasons. Maybe you're in the UK and want to watch that hot new show that just came out in America, but the British TV distributors don't have it yet.
Or maybe you're traveling for work and just want to watch that show that you've already paid for in the first place, or use that streaming service you already fork over good money for, and it's not your fault you had to run out of the country for a few days.
Or maybe the laws about what can be shown in your country preclude certain content from being available.
That's where a VPN comes in. You fire one up, and it makes your traffic appear as if it's coming from another country. And usually you can choose the end point. So if you're in, say, France, you can make it look like your computer is still in the United States.
But what if you're not leaving the U.S. Any reason to use a VPN? Maybe. Television blackouts are — somehow in 2019 — still a thing. This could help you get around them.
Wait, this is starting to sound shady — is it?
There are definitely some gray areas here. First, don't do anything illegal and get yourself in trouble in your part of the world. That would be bad. And it's perfectly OK to not want to cross over into any gray areas.
On the other hand, there's absolutely nothing wrong with using a VPN itself. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with content providers saying they don't want you using a VPN to attempt to circumvent regional requirements. (That doesn't necessarily mean we have to like it, though.) And that has launched a sort of cat-and-mouse game. It's not unheard of for a content provider — say, Netflix — to lock things down so you can't watch U.S. content outside of the United States, even if you're using a VPN that makes it look like you're still in the U.S.
The VPN companies adjust. And then the content provider adjusts. And so goes the game.
But is using a VPN to watch something somewhere you're not intended to watch it shady? I probably wouldn't go that far. Just know there may be roadblocks, and you might have to do a little work to watch what you want to watch.
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