Free TV, a completely anonymous Web presence and the ability to duck Web "pharmers" - all this, and more, can be yours by making a little bitty change in your Internet setting. And, if you download some cheap software, you don't even have to make the changes yourself.
It all started when I read about the free TV programs being offered by the major US networks. Have you heard about this? While we're slogging through old reruns of shows that have been canceled long ago (I won't mention any names, but you know which ones I'm talking about), ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox, along with PBS offer many of their new season hits for free viewing on Web sites. It turns out that many of the TV shows available from supposedly "pirate" services like Bittorrent are really 100% kosher - just load the shows up in your browser anytime and watch. It sort of breaks the aura of dangerous romance associated with "illegal" downloading, but on the other hand, we all have enough other shady activities we are going to be called on when we get "upstairs," right?
However, there is one catch: If you try to connect to any of the sites (listed below) using a standard Web connection provided by Bezeq or HOT, your browser, instead of displaying the latest episode of Lost, Prison Break, or Ugly Betty (the very funny US version of the world-renowned telenova; the local version was called Ugly Esti), will inform you that the free viewing is for US located computers only.
Damn Americans - they get everything! I mean, all they have to do is turn on their TVs and stick a video tape into their VCRs, or if they're techie enough, press a few buttons on their Tivo remote control (http://www.tivo.com), to watch a show at their convenience. They have so many other ways to access first run shows - while we, who really need this service, are discriminated against simply because of our location? Of course, the networks have their own reasons for offering these shows only in the US (mostly due to contracts with foreign broadcasters for distribution rights), but I don't imagine that the ability to watch shows that are probably never even going to air here will make or break YES or HOT, causing mass cancellations by online video watchers.
There is a way around being "Israeli" as far as the TV sites (or any other site) are concerned, however - all you have to do is make the site you're trying to connect with believe that you're located in the US. Technically, it's not a difficult thing to do - in fact, the major Web browsers allow you to easily pretend to be someone you aren't with the insertion of a manual proxy configuration.
Usually, proxies are used to redirect your browser to a server with a Web cache for faster page loading. The proxy server, which can range from a local network Web server to a worldwide service like Google Web Accelerator (webaccelerator.google.com/webmasterhelp.html), does Web crawling of specific sites and updates on a regular basis, allowing faster surfing to those connecting to the Web via the proxy. Proxies are also used by filtering programs to keep out Web pages system administrators want to ban (http://www.nongnu.org/probity/), such as pages inappropriate for kids.
But there is a whole subset of proxy servers - many available for free - to allow users to surf the Internet anonymously. A large and constantly updated list of these proxies is located at http://www.proxz.com (click on High Anonymous on the left side and additional info will tell you where the server is located). When you surf to a site, logs on the remote site will record the proxy's IP, not yours - meaning that if anyone is recording your Web behavior (i.e. what shopping sites you frequent, etc.) their log stats will get all messed up and potential spam or future banner ads that might be generated will be directed to the wrong server.
To get to the proxy settings: In Firefox 2, click on Tools > Options > Advanced > Network Tab > Settings Button, and type in the proxy address and port number on the Manual Proxy Configuration line. In Internet Explorer 7, click on Tools > Internet Options > LAN settings > Proxy server settings. To check that the proxy address is the one your browser is broadcasting, surf to http://ipchicken.com, where you will see your IP address and server location.
Of course, using one of these proxy servers does not rule out the possibility - actually, definite fact - that your IP traffic and activity is being recorded by the proxy server. Most, if not all the free proxies on the Proxz site belong to the large CoDeen on-line lab run by Princeton and other universities (http://codeen.cs.princeton.edu), which has a number of rules about what sites or Web services you are allowed to access using their servers (secure https: sites are not allowed, for example).
For everyday Web surfing, the Proxz CoDeen proxies are just fine - if you're just surfing to news sites or playing on-line games, for example, you won't have any problems. I was able to get the free proxy I set up to play shows on the CBS site (that had previously refused to load because of my computer's location), but the other sites still insisted that I was in America. Very strange, I thought, because IPChicken listed by IP address as being in the US. Either the CoDeen servers were leaking information about me, or the TV sites have the ones I tried listed as proxy servers and refuse to honor requests from them. Note that Proxz lists hundreds of servers in the US - I only tried three, so it was by no means a thorough test of the CoDeen servers.
It was time for the big guns - a serious, local anonymizer that would make all the necessary changes necessary to totally mask my on-line identity. As you would expect, you can't get that kind of service for free, but while $2.50 a month isn't free, it's a lot cheaper than a cable subscription, or even a night out at the movies for one.
The $2.50 big gun, in this case, comes in form of Anonymizer (http://www.anonymizer.com), the first and still the best of the by now hundreds of anonymous surfing services available on the Internet (http://www.freeproxy.ru/en/free-proxy/cgi-proxy.htm). Anonymizer, formerly a site where you typed in a Web address and called up a CGI that would redirect your request from a proxy, is all grown up and offers professional level software and anonymizing services. An annual subscription is $29.99 - and it works. I was able to load up all the TV sites I tried and, of course, I'm bleary eyed writing this after having watched about six hours of TV online. The one drawback of Anonymizer - and other proxy solutions - is that it can slow down your surfing capabilities. On the other hand, it provides extra protection from all sorts of Web threats - including "phishing" (which you probably know all about) and "pharming" (which you probably never heard of but can find out about at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pharming).
But forget all that security stuff; if you can live with the guilt involved in pretending to be a Web entity you really aren't, the latest US TV shows - courtesy of the people who make them - can be yours for a pittance.
PBS Frontline: www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/view
Some sites required Flash, one required RealPlayer. All worked far better in IE than in Firefox.