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Bypass Web Surveillance and Censorship with CitizenVPN

Bypass Web Surveillance and Censorship with CitizenVPN

Ditsa Keren
Ditsa Keren

CitizenVPN connects you through their VPN servers to allow unlimited access to websites and services all over the world while ensuring your complete privacy. In this interview, founder and CEO Tobias Skytte portrays the reasons to use VPN in the first place, and the things to look out for when choosing a free or paid VPN service.

Please describe the story behind CitizenVPN: What sparked the idea, and how has it evolved so far?

Before CitizenVPN, I had another startup that was an internet service provider. A VPN is a virtual internet provider. Much of the underlying technologies are very similar and so are the challenges, so it was pretty straightforward for me to move into this.

I started CitizenVPN in 2010 and have had three more co-founders joined me since. We believe privacy is a human right and have made it our mission to allow private browsing to anyone in the world, for free. Over the years, we have been developing our Android VPN app and have recently released its third version. We feel we have a very strong competitive edge on the market.

What are some common reasons to use a VPN?

You can bypass any firewalls blocking your access to websites by creating an encrypted connection to our server that the firewall will not be able to block, or at least not very easily.

Let’s say you’re at university and Facebook is blocked. A VPN can open it up for you. It also works with all kinds of blocking like when a particular website blocks you based on the country you’re coming from. In this case, you can connect to a server in their country and the service will become accessible again.

Let’s say you travel on holiday and you’re accessing things like Google search, but because you’re now in a different country than you’re used to then search results will be different or it might show up in a different language. If you traveled to the Middle East, suddenly everything’s in Arabic and you might not like it as much, so you can just connect the VPN to your home country, and everything will be back to normal.

Some people like to watch TV from their home country when they are on holiday, but many local and national TV stations limit viewing outside their country, especially in Europe. With VPN, they can keep up with their series, local news, or whatever it is they want to watch.

Finally, there is also the privacy aspect. With VPN, your connection becomes encrypted, so that Big brother or any other intermediary looking into your data streams will not be able to see or listen to it in the same way.

Furthermore, your location is obscured from websites. Most websites today can tell their users’ IP addresses to know where they’re coming from. But when you’re using a VPN, your IP address becomes anonymous so you can have a certain degree of anonymity when you use a website.

How common are censorship, surveillance, and fake news, who’s behind them, and how can they be avoided with VPN?

Censorship exists in at least two ways, one way is when content like news articles or videos is censored for people coming from specific regions and the other is when it is censored for everyone. Of course, a VPN can not do anything in the latter case, but quite often especially news articles and videos in the US will be censored for everyone outside the US, and in this case, it is a simple matter of connecting your VPN to a US server to gain access to the content.

There are several kinds of surveillance. The first kind is Government surveillance, also known as the Big Brother. This is the dragnet-style surveillance where they collect everything about everybody’s actions in the hope they can use that later if they need to.

Governments have many overlapping layers of surveillance, so even if you use a VPN to mask your actions, there might still be other kinds of surveillance on you, like apps on your smartphone or your bank records showing what you purchased. A VPN can be great to avoid government dragnet surveillance, especially if you use it all the time.

Another kind of surveillance is when websites track their visitors. Every website can see and log the IP address of their visitors, but this is easily avoidable with a VPN, which masks the user’s IP address. While it is possible to gain complete anonymity with a VPN, it is very difficult to achieve as you have to be extremely careful. A single login to a site where you forgot to activate your VPN is enough for them to now be able to tie your real IP address with your username on the site. This is why it is important to use the VPN all the time so you don’t risk forgetting to use it.

Regarding Fake News, there are some cases where governments deliberately spread it in order to achieve some propaganda effect. In this case, there is speculation that they may abuse VPN providers to, for example, create 100s of fake accounts on Twitter, so they can use these fake accounts to spread their propaganda.

A recent example of this is when a Chinese official’s tweet containing the image of an Australian soldier and sparked a furious reaction from Canberra, was amplified across social media by unusual accounts, of which half were likely fake. Several of these accounts were identified in a data-set of 37,000 Chinese accounts that have been targeting Australia since June.

Whether or not they do abuse VPN accounts for this purpose is up for speculation but it would be an obvious way for them to hide their actions. This is something that is very difficult for the industry to address.

What’s the difference between free and paid VPN?

Several VPN providers offer an entirely free service, but the only way they can survive is if they sell their users’ data. They’ll be able to see the data flowing through their systems and make all kinds of analysis on that and sell it to the highest bidder. This means all kinds of personal information can get sold about you and it’s just not safe. This is the worst kind of VPN, and there’s quite a lot of them.

The other tier is a bit more acceptable, where they have a premium service that you can subscribe to but they also provide a free service. They do this in hope that free users will upgrade, just like we do as well, but their business model is more about providing a permanently free service. Of course, it’s not economically viable, so they overload their servers and as a result, the connection slows down. The free users of those platforms get a bad experience, but if they did it any differently, the costs would just be crazy.

The other VPNs that I mentioned, the ones that steal your data, might offer a slightly better experience, but your data will still get sold.

How have you managed to overcome this at CitizenVPN?

We are somewhere in between. We will never sell your data, we just earn money on the ads you choose to watch, so at the end of the day, you get a good VPN experience for free.

Since we started as a premium service provider, we never used to have a free version like many of our competitors. We wanted to give all users a good connection, which is difficult if you have a lot of free users. Evidently, those competitors who have a lot of free users tend to have a slow connection and will not always work very well.

We realized that was a problem because a lot of countries don’t have access to payment means. Even if they have the funds to pay for the service, they don’t always have access to credit cards or payment methods that we can accept. For these users, it’s difficult to use a Premium-only service, so we decided to give them the option to watch a video ad, and immediately get 30 minutes of free VPN. Typically we see people watching three or four ads in a row, and then use it for a couple of hours, and it works really well.

We have a lot of users in the Middle East who are doing that and we’ve also been campaigning in places like Afghanistan, parts of Africa, Morocco, and other places. We see that a lot of people are enjoying this service because they are getting a premium service for free, and unlike other free VPNs that usually have a poor connection, ours is a good quality connection.

Furthermore, it’s not like they get ads that pop up in their face when they’re busy browsing. They seem to like having the choice of how many ads they want to watch, and when. So, this is a new thing in the industry and so far it’s going quite well.

How do you expect emerging privacy regulations to impact the VPN market?

It’s not an issue because privacy protections are mostly for information that you willingly give to a website or a company, and this doesn’t really impact the VPN market.

In terms of privacy, VPN is mostly about all the stuff that you don’t know is being gathered about you. Nowadays, they have to notify you that they are gathering this information but they are typically burying it on page 20 of some very long terms and conditions stated when you want to use some app or service. I don’t think anybody’s reading that, they just tick the box and start using the app.

VPN will protect you from that kind of opted surveillance, but in the same way, it also protects you from the things they don’t tell you about.

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