December 07, 2011 Safe surfing with a VPN, a VPN service provider, offered me a free six-month subscription as an incentive to try their service and post a review.  Aside from the free subscription, I figured it was a good way to learn about VPNs, so I took them up on the offer.  Here's my review, based upon one day of using

A VPN is a virtual private network, connecting two or more locations on the Internet to one another. It's private in that all traffic within the VPN is encrypted, making it extremely difficult for anyone else to access the data. It's virtual because the communications take place using the public Internet rather than over an actual private network.

If you set up an account with a VPN service like, you can use it to connect to websites or do just about anything else on the Internet without disclosing your actual location. Normally your IP address is visible to websites that you connect to, and from that they can often pinpoint your physical location and determine other information about you. (For a quick example, take a look at What Is My IP Address? or InfoSniper.) When you go through a VPN, however, only the IP address of the VPN is visible. (Of course, there are many other ways that websites can get information about you. The privacy or incognito mode on your web browser can conceal some but not all of this information.)

Why would you use a VPN service? There are many reasons; here are just a few:

  • You want websites to think you are in a different country. For example, you may be trying to order something or view content that is only available to users in certain countries. Using a VPN that makes it appear as if you are somewhere else may circumvent country restrictions. has servers in several different countries.
  • You want to protect the privacy and security of your communications. This is especially important when you are traveling or using a public wifi hotspot, since it's often very easy for others to eavesdrop on your communications. Using a VPN will encrypt data between you and the VPN, but it doesn't have much effect on the other side of the VPN, so it's still important to pay attention to other security functions, such as using https rather than http to access websites securely.
  • You don't completely trust your regular Internet service provider. Your ISP can access all of your communications, but if you use a VPN, all it will see is the encrypted data. So if your ISP (or school, employer, etc.) tries to block certain websites such as Facebook, using a VPN should circumvent that, since all the ISP will see is your encrypted connection to the VPN. (That's why Pakistan recently banned the use of VPNs.) Of course, you'll need to trust the VPN, since it will have access to your communications. This may well be an issue; many VPN services are located in other countries for legal reasons. says it is located in Malta, and claims that it does not monitor or store logs of any user activity. I can't vouch for personally, but as far as I can tell it is legit, and I haven't yet seen any red flags.
  • You don't trust sites that you may be connecting to. For example, if you use BitTorrent to download or distribute files, any nodes that you connect to will see your IP address, and in some cases may complain to your ISP, claiming that they own the copyright in one of the files. Many ISPs will send warning notices to subscribers threatening to cut off service rather than checking whether there is any merit to the claim. Concealing your IP address avoids this issue. Note that there are perfectly legitimate uses of BitTorrent, just as there are for VPNs. allows BitTorrent and other peer-to-peer services, but says it does not support using these services to transfer copyright material.
  • It's not very difficult to use a VPN service, and most providers will give you simple instructions to follow. There are three common encryption protocols you can use when connecting to a VPN (PPTP, L2TP/IPSec, and OpenVPN); many providers give you a choice. has a table that explains the differences.

There are some potential disadvantages to consider:

  • As mentioned above, you'll need to trust the VPN service provider, just as you need to trust your regular Internet service provider when you aren't using a VPN.
  • Using a VPN can slow down your Internet access, especially if you are accessing a VPN that is far away. Many factors affect the speed you will get, including the location of the VPN server and the protocol that you use to connect. With, my connection slowed from about 14 Mbps to 1 Mbps when I used L2TP/IPSec, but came back up to about 8 Mbps when I switched to OpenVPN. (By way of comparison, I tested a different VPN service which supports only the less secure PPTP, and got about 7 Mbps.)
  • In most cases you'll have to pay a monthly or annual fee for a VPN service. charges $15/month or $100/year. That seems to be toward the higher end of the spectrum, but watch out for restrictions on other services; they don't all offer the same features, and some limit the amount of data you can send and receive. (I found these comparison tables helpful: VPN Service Providers; VPN Reviews.)

December 06, 2011

Sue 'em all!

The list of defendants in this case is interesting: George W. Bush, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, Viacom, AT&T, T-Mobile, Skype, AOL, Hotmail, Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles, and two more pages worth (including NSA, CIA, FBI, AIA, Pentagon, the State of Louisiana, and the Pope).

But why isn't President Obama on the list? Perhaps the plaintiff is concerned that the litigation would be delayed if she named a sitting president as a defendant.

Thomas v Bush Complaint

June 28, 2011

Microsoft outbids Google

Microsoft has just launched Office 365, a cloud-based suite of applications (email, calendar, word processor, spreadsheet, etc.). As far as I can tell, it looks a lot like the services that Google has been offering for several years (as Gmail and Google Docs). The main difference seems to be the price: FREE from Google, or $6 per user per month for Microsoft's Office 365. Nice try, Microsoft, but I'll stick with Google for now, thank you very much. (When Microsoft starts offering a free version of Office 365 for individuals, we'll talk -- but I suspect they'll think twice before doing that, for fear of cannibalizing sales of their Office software.)

March 10, 2011

Thanks, Governor Quinn!

I received this email from Amazon today:


For well over a decade, the Amazon Associates Program has worked with thousands of Illinois residents. Unfortunately, a new state tax law signed by Governor Quinn compels us to terminate this program for Illinois-based participants. It specifically imposes the collection of taxes from consumers on sales by online retailers - including but not limited to those referred by Illinois-based affiliates like you - even if those retailers have no physical presence in the state.

We had opposed this new tax law because it is unconstitutional and counterproductive.  It was supported by national retailing chains, most of which are based outside Illinois, that seek to harm the affiliate advertising programs of their competitors. Similar legislation in other states has led to job and income losses, and little, if any, new tax revenue.  We deeply regret that its enactment forces this action.

As a result of the new law, contracts with all Illinois affiliates of the Amazon Associates Program will be terminated and those Illinois residents will no longer receive advertising fees for sales referred to [ ], [ ], or [ ]. Please be assured that all qualifying advertising fees earned prior to April 15, 2011 will be processed and paid in full in accordance with the regular payment schedule.  Based on your account closure date of April 15, 2011, any final payments will be paid by July 1, 2011.

You are receiving this email because our records indicate that you are a resident of Illinois. If you are not currently a permanent resident of Illinois, or if you are relocating to another state in the near future, you can manage the details of your Associates account here [ ]. And if you relocate to another state after April 15, please contact us [ ] for reinstatement into the Amazon Associates Program.

To be clear, this development will only impact our ability to continue the Associates Program in Illinois, and will not affect the ability of Illinois residents to purchase online at [ ] from Amazon s retail business.

We have enjoyed working with you and other Illinois-based participants in the Amazon Associates Program and, if this situation is rectified, would very much welcome the opportunity to re-open our Associates Program to Illinois residents.


The Amazon Associates Team