To Proxy or Not to Proxy

To Proxy or Not to Proxy

This month I have been contacted by a number of people, who like myself, who have been unfortunate enough to be affected by the loss of TV in our area. All of them are asking the same question – “How do I use a proxy server to access my favourite TV programmes?”

These people have been told by friends, or have read on forums about ´mystical computer things´ called proxy servers and how, by using them, you can fool the BBC, and other UK terrestrial broadcasters, into allowing you to use their re-play web based systems, like BBC iPlayer. So this month I have decided to dedicate the article to explaining the use of proxy servers and why you should only be using them if you understand the risks.
So, what is a proxy server? Simply it’s a computer that has been setup to allow you to access the Internet through it. Proxy servers are usually used in large organisations or educational institutions to allow their IT department to monitor what web sites their users are accessing. It allows them, amongst other things, to restrict access to certain web sites and / or web content. For example in a corporate environment the IT department would also use a proxy server to ensure that access to “undesirable” web sites is restricted from the work network.

“OK Rich, thanks for the lesson but what does this have to do with my TV not working?” ed

Well if you live in Spain and want to access the BBC iPlayer service then you can’t because the BBC will see that you are attempting to access their service from outside the UK and they stop you from being able to do so. If, however, you configure your web browser to use a UK based proxy server then all of your Internet requests are then routed via the UK, thus fooling the BBC service into registering your request as originating in the UK and they therefore allow you to use the service.

“Sounds great, so what’s the catch?” ed

There is no catch; however there are a number of complications that you should be aware of.

Firstly you are potentially, voluntarily passing ALL of your Internet web requests via a server that you know very little or nothing about. Now it could be totally legitimate, but it could also very easily be skimming off “personal” information as you use it – why would you want to compromise your security in this way?
Secondly, because the BBC are quite determined to only provide their services to UK residents, they are actively locating and denying access to proxy servers that they realise are being abused in this way. The upshot of this is that any proxy server address that you add to your web browser is likely to stop working at some point, either sooner or later and at this stage you will need to remove it or replace it with another functioning address to get your Internet connection back.
Finally proxy servers that allow you to use them anonymously are notoriously unstable and have a habit of working for a few days, then stopping for a few days, this can be very frustrating when you are relying on it to provide something like your favourite soap.

“So we shouldn’t use them then? Is that what you´re saying” ed

Not at all, however what I am saying is that you should use them with respect and with a knowledge of the risk involved, don’t just jump at the opportunity to blindly follow what you read on a forum or what you friend says you should do. At the end of the day, if you have any concerns or questions then give your IT guy a call before you do anything.

As always, if you have any questions relating to this or any other IT problem then please don’t hesitate to contact me by phone or email using the details on this page.