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Virtual Portals to Nowhere

The legend has it, there was a time when, if you wanted to spend and evening with your family, friends or significant other watching a film, you actually had to physically visit a DVD store – like good ol’ Blockbuster, for example – and rent or buy a copy of the product by yourself. The same applied for music in record stores or books in bookstores, not to mention the hassle of writing letters and storing your documents in drawers overloaded with files and folders. Whether you believe such rumors or not, those dark ages are now over, and from the screen of your laptop, bright like a beacon of civilization in the night, you can access a virtually unlimited range of content at any time, anywhere in the world, with just a few clicks. As an individual, you may decide to use this power to purchase and download any sort of media content, or perhaps to transfer your data from point A to point B anywhere on the globe, the choice is yours. However, as a company, storing and sharing data within the personnel might prove slightly more difficult through the common channels. Fortunately, there are two tools companies can use to make the most of their virtual resources: one is a Local Area Network (LAN), a hub through which all computers within the company can access the Internet via connection to a local server, the other is a Virtual Private Network (VPN).

Quick summary of how a VPN works.

A VPN is a network that unites all sites and domains belonging to one company, wherever they may be located, into one single entity, using the Internet and other shared and public networks as infrastructure. This can effectively be used to connect several LANs into one larger system accessible from anywhere in the world, with the only condition of Internet access. Logging into a VPN generally requires two forms of identification: a personal identification number (PIN) and a password. Usually the PIN is fixed, but sometimes, when a higher level of protection is needed, the provider of the VPN may decide to implement algorithms that continuously change the PIN – say, every thirty seconds – which needs to be entered again upon access. A VPN is a relatively cheap way of building a private network, as it uses the Internet as its main communication channel, instead of expensive leased private lines: the only significant costs are those relative to the authentication hardware and software and any other security device. The ease, speed and flexibility of VPNs have made them ideal tools for companies that require flexibility in data sharing between users that may be scattered across the globe. One great example of such use of VPNs is our own university, which employs a network called UVAVPN, provided by Juniper Networks. By accessing UVAVPN, you automatically acquire the same authorizations as any other employee of the university, which includes access to academic journals and article storage systems. This allows you to read any article you need for your research even outside of Amsterdam, in your home country, as long as you have Internet access.

VPNs can potentially make any sort of content available to billions of users simultaneously, but is that something we should be glad or worried about? As an independent user that supports the inevitable advance of progress, you might be tempted to state that the benefits compensate the downsides by far. However, as a company or artist that benefits from copyrights, the matter becomes slightly more complex.

It so happens that some VPNs do not track users’ IP address – our “ virtual fingerprint” on the Internet – whenever they access the network. This means that anybody can log in to the network and use it while remaining completely anonymous, which is why these specific VPNs are called “no-logging” VPNs. The consequences of this sort of policy are, in fact, very predictable: nothing really stops anybody from uploading copyrighted or illegal content into the VPN for the entire world to take advantage of. The Cisco Visual Networking Index (VNI) estimated that file-sharing worldwide increased by 80% between 2008 and 2014, peaking at an average of 6090 petabytes per month worth of content. To give you an idea of what this figure means, imagine having 9.7 billion CDs stacked all together in the same place. Chances are you would end up covering the entire surface of your city, and most likely also that of the surrounding region and maybe even that of a small country, with piles and piles of CDs. Now, imagine adding 9.7 billion more CDs to the pile every month: that’s a rough but effective estimate of the entity of the illegal data flow that runs through our globe every month. Even without an in-depth knowledge of the inner workings of the music and film industry and art in general, you might realize how much this means for firms and artists alike in terms of unrealized profits, which is why VPNs have recently become the target of a crusade led by anti-piracy agencies throughout the world. The latest case involved streaming giant Netflix, which cracked down on the increasing number of users exploiting VPNs to access country-specific contents from abroad but to no avail: the strict privacy clauses between VPN and user allow providers to repeal requests of IP address disclosure from anti-piracy agencies or governments, thus keeping pirates under anonymity. It is clear then that the legal system still needs time to adjust to the new reality and that, at the moment, there is no effective legislation preventing anarchy to rule the Internet.

VPNs are the ushers of an age in which all data will be available to everyone. In the meantime, however, we should not forget that what is right and what is legal not always coincide, and that the guarantee of copyright is often an effective incentive for art to thrive and prosper in our society, without which life would lose all flavor.


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