Increasingly, college students appear to be using VPN connections to circumvent university traffic-shaping policies and outright restrictions on some sites. Reporting in multiple sources implies that universities have had trouble with excessive traffic due to people downloading torrent files. ZDnet, however, points out that the figures are much lower than they are for standard ISPs and that some of the numbers may be skewed by the fact that VPNs are gaining popularity with college students.
Most of the reporting about college students and VPN services has implied that VPN services are largely being used to mask piracy. While there is certainly piracy on the Internet, it’s not the only reason that people use VPN services. College students, being younger on average than the people attempting to restrict their behavior, are quick to adopt technology that provides them with what has become one of the most important goals for today’s Internet users: privacy.
The specter of piracy is almost always invoked when colleges and universities start to put restrictions on bandwidth, blocking sites or otherwise restricting Internet access. Infamous Internet sites such as The Pirate Bay, for instance, are blocked at many colleges. There is a legitimate question as to whether or not this is the result of well-intentioned administrators trying to save bandwidth and protect copyright owners or whether it is simply the result of a misunderstanding of how the Internet works.
For college administrators and legislators, the bit torrent protocol is the boogeyman they hold up as the reason for almost all of their restrictive policies. Bit torrent, however, is simply a very convenient and fast way to transfer large amounts of data. In an environment such as a college, there are certainly going to be many people using bit torrent and, further, many people using it for entirely legitimate purposes.
Distro or Disco?
The bit torrent protocol is used to transfer large files in many legal and legitimate ways. For instance, for the computer science majors at any large university, bit torrent is usually the best and most reliable way to get the latest Linux distros. It’s efficient and fast and the community built up around open source software oftentimes uses this protocol to make their software more available.
Some video games update via bit torrent, simply because it is so fast and reliable. With traffic shaping policies or outright restrictions that apply to bit torrent, students may not be able to download patches and updates to programs that they paid for, at a university that they pay for, on an Internet connection that they’re paying for. Unfortunately for those who seek to restrict what they do not understand, young people are very good at adopting new technologies.
VPN services are more available than ever and very easy to use. Most college students have no trouble understanding what encryption does and that it allows them to bypass traffic shaping policies and bans on sites. With protocols such as OpenVPN and SSTP, blocking ports no longer works as a way to restrict access to VPN servers.
While colleges try to restrict their student’s Internet usage and the entertainment industry tries to restrict everyone else’s, it’s becoming more apparent that the up and coming generation is savvy, willing to adopt new technology and not about to have the terms of their Internet access dictated by people who give every indication that they don’t understand technology very well, anyway.