Today, most users surf the web unaware that sites pinpoint their locations – and if they are aware, why are they concerned?
It seems harmless, convenient even; perhaps users are shopping and wish to view items in their country’s currency or they’re browsing for content and prefer to read in their native language.
It’s tough to imagine, then, that sites sometimes collect user locations for evil – or rather, user discrimination.
In simple terms, user discrimination is segmenting users and disadvantaging them based on their location, device, browser, etc.
So how does someone combat this discrimination?
VPNs, or Virtual Private Networks, aren’t just for securing personal information or bypassing country codes to watch Netflix overseas, they can also be used to combat price discrimination and even censorship. VPNs work by overlaying a private network on top of a public network, effectively encrypting the information that passes through the networks.
In doing so, it disguises your computer’s personal information (location, device, browser) and permits you to browse the web anonymously.
VPNs permit you to browse freely without feeling like you have no control over user discrimination. By using a VPN to connect to a remote server and browse as if you were in another country, you can take advantage of changing geo locations.
Why would you need to do that? Here are two major reasons:
For several years, the internet has enabled people to gain a certain amount of power over retailers by allowing users to easily navigate and compare prices.
Without moving an inch, shoppers can find better deals in various locations with the click of a button.
Recently, however, e-commerce websites have begun fighting to take back that power by using various information like your search history, where you’re located, and which device you’re using to manipulate the prices and make as much money as possible in the process.
While we’ve learned to trust price comparisons on various websites, studies have proven that some major e-commerce websites present different prices to users for the exact same searches.
This particular study found that users who were logged into their Cheaptickets accounts were offered lower prices than shoppers who were not registered with the website. The motive behind this was to incentivize users to engage more with their site.
This particular example – because Cheaptickets didn’t abuse personal user information – is seemingly harmless, however, some companies take price discrimination to another level. Take Home Depot for example, where users on mobile devices saw higher prices than shoppers browsing on desktops.
Orbitz was also exposed after steering Mac users towards more expensive hotels. The company found that Mac computer users spend up to 30 percent more money on hotels, so they began showing them more expensive traveling options than Windows users.
In fact, the travel industry is the biggest culprit when it comes to location based price discrimination. It has been proven that searching for a flight with the exact same specifications can result in a price difference of close to $500, simply because of your location.
Once you’ve added car rentals to the mix, the combined total of your next trip (hotels, flights…) could be thousands of dollars more simply because you live in a certain area.
The same year, Staples was charging people various prices for the same product depending on their geographical location.
The ‘Swingline stapler’ on their website was sold to two different people, one person paid $15.79 while the other paid $14.29. This price difference was based on where the two consumers were located, with the expectation that the first user lived in a wealthier area and could afford the price hike.
Still, that’s not all Staples did; it was discovered that Staples offered lower prices to consumers living within a 20 mile radius of Office Depot and OfficeMax – their main competitors – ultimately giving Staples the competitive edge.
But these are just first world problems – in several countries like North Korea, Syria, China, and Ethiopia, users are discriminated not by merchandisers but by their own governments.
As you probably learned in high school, authoritative governments wish to maintain strict control over the media so that their citizens aren’t exposed to critical, often truthful, information.
In the internet age, they do so by restricting access to unfiltered information, such as English news sites and Western social media platforms.
In Azerbaijan, online users resort to self-censorship due to a criminal defamation law that threatens a six-month prison sentence. News and social media websites are blocked without notice. Journalists and bloggers are treated harshly with more than 10 locked in Azerbaijani jails.
This includes the award winning investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova who was imprisoned after a two year campaign to silence her from exposing government corruption and human rights abuse in Azerbaijan. Ultimately, a local man accused her of urging him to commit suicide – many believe this was an unsubstantiated attempt by the government to throw her in jail.
Influential journalists fled the country in 2014 and those still in the country have been confronted with attacks, harassment, travel bans, and groundless jail time.
Nourhan Balian is a young Syrian journalist and blogger.
The Syrian government imposes strict online censorship in order to control their population with an iron fist. They also frequently blackout the internet completely to disturb communication and cut off the population’s access to the media.
Criticizing the regime and speaking out on topics such as sex, religion and politics could lead to imprisonment or even death.
While in Syria, Nouhran ran a blog under a hidden identity through which he examined the country’s situation from a liberal point of view and aimed to provide a voice for the millions of ethnic and religious minorities. Nouran used a VPN daily to unblock social media websites and stay anonymous online, otherwise his internet activities could have been traced back to him and put him in grave danger.
Today Nourhan lives in Canada, but while he lived in Syria he found a VPN essential to his ability to enjoy freedom of expression.
Now what? Choosing a VPN based on your needs
Clearly, VPNs are important and necessary today. But before you go ahead and download one, make sure you take the following factors into consideration:
1. Cost: VPNs aren’t too expensive, but the prices do vary from vendor to vendor. If cost is your main concern, go with something cheaper, or free even – like Hola. But keep in mind that a reduced cost typically means you’re compromising on other important factors, namely privacy and security.
2. Reliability: Choose a VPN that is trusted and reliable. Read reviews and make sure one, it works, and two, they’re transparent and good hearted. SaferVPN for example is known specifically for helping people in oppressive countries. It might sound generic, but go with a popular VPN – after all, it’s popular for a reason.
3. High security: A highly secure and safe VPN has the following features: 128-bit encryption, anonymous DNS servers, and an absence of connection logs. (Yes, some VPNs still keep connection logs for a few days to help troubleshoot problems.)
This post is part of our contributor series. The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily shared by TNW.