This guest post is written by Niels Peen, who is a versatilist and techie currently residing somewhere on the wonderful island of Hong Kong. Having put his expertise to work for a number of industries and NGO’s, he’s currently focused on bringing useful corporate technologies to small businesses and consumers.

If you would Google for VPN’s (virtual private networks) a 10-15 years ago, you would run into products and discussions focusing on replacing expensive leased-lines and dial-up connections with low-cost Internet based alternatives. VPN’s being a corporate application, a lot of effort went into the security and platform support of different VPN technologies. Cisco, Microsoft and many others made sure their products supported VPN’s out of the box.

Fast-forward to current day Google results and things look very different. While still faithfully performing its original purpose, VPN’s have turned out to be the swiss-knife of computer networking and are applied in countless of new applications. Interestingly, not all of these applications are focused on the enterprise. In fact, various types of consumer VPN services are booming business.

Todays Google results will include anything from privacy-aware people looking to hide their IP address, to groups trying to install VPN’s on their Apple TV so they can enjoy Hulu and other US-centric services outside the US. When it comes to consumer VPN’s I roughly identify 3 different groups:

1. The privacy and security aware.

When you access the Internet through a VPN, the IP address visible to the websites you visit will be that of the VPN, not the one your ISP assigned to you. This makes it a lot harder for advertising networks and other parties to figure out who or where you are. Combined with other precautions (clearing your browser cookies, etc.) this essentially allows you to browse the web anonymously. As the path between your computer and the VPN provider is encrypted you also shield yourself from people snooping your Internet traffic. This makes using public WiFi hotspots, hotel networks or other ‘hostile’ environments a lot safer. Assuming of course, you pick a reliable VPN provider.

2. People in restricted environments.

While Internet censorship was typically something that happened “only in China”, it’s now becoming a common practice in more and more countries. Travel through Asia and the Middle-East and you’ll find a number of social networks, Skype(-like) applications and gambling websites to be blocked frequently. If you live in Australia or Kenya may have figured out that sites like Wikileaks and Wikipedia were (partially) blocked for a while in 2009. In the name of crime-fighting and national security, the number of countries censoring their Internet has skyrocketed. While western countries typically claim their filters are filtering child abuse only (apparently believing that if the public can’t see the crime and stop pressuring the police for results, the phenomenon will disappear by itself), very few countries provide ways to verify this.

3. Those looking for entertainment.

With a number of countries cracking down on file sharing and some ISP’s filtering peer-to-peer traffic for ‘technical’ reasons, people are looking for alternative ways to get their entertainment. While a growing number of people turn to Usenet for the file sharing needs, many still consider it a relatively complex solution. If you’re an avid torrent user, selecting the right VPN (one that allows torrents) can have you back in business in just minutes. Additionally, VPN’s can often provide you country-specific IP addresses allowing you to access services like Hulu, Spotify, etc. which may otherwise not be available to you.

It’s sad to conclude that the Internet is losing its freedoms so rapidly.Whether it’s corporations tracking your every move to create advertising profiles, governments trying to determine what you can and can’t see, or the entertainment industry telling you the DVD you bought is for your eyes only.

If your looking to restore some of your freedoms, have a look at Readers of this blog receive a 5% discount using the PLATYPUSMAN promo code if signing up before June 1st.

* Please note that offers solutions to groups 1 and 2 only. If you’re looking for file-sharing we recommend you sign up with instead.