Given the number of countries around the world that seek to block Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) or implement policies like age verification on adult content, it seems that national politicians struggle to wrap their heads around what a Virtual Private Network (VPN) is and how people can use it to mask their true online location.
So, perhaps it should come as no surprise that local politicians much further down the chain of command also have no idea about VPNs too.
That certainly seems to be the case in North Yorkshire, where one local councillor attempted to undermine a petition on a local development by arguing that the signatories were from as far away as Australia.
North Yorkshire’s Station Gateway Petition
The whole storm-in-a-teacup blew up around the Station Gateway Development in Harrogate, North Yorkshire.
Back in May, North Yorkshire Council, which is responsible for planning and development in the area, was presented with a petition calling for the controversial active travel scheme to be scrapped.
Later that month, in a Council meeting to discuss the petition, Councillor David Chance argued that the petition was flawed and dismissed its findings.
Why? Well, Councillor Chance had studied the petition in depth (you might think he would have had better things to do with his time) and concluded that no fewer than 20% of the signatories to the petition were from areas outside Harrogate.
He explained that “I’ve been through it in detail. They come from Canada, South Africa, Australia and Scotland. I’m sorry, the petition for me is slightly bogus in that respect.”
While Councillor Chance was quite happy to dismiss the petition on this basis alone, he was seemingly unable to explain why people in such far-flung places as Australia, South Africa, and Canada, would go to the effort of signing a petition about a development in a small town in Northern England.
A Citizen’s Insight
You are probably well ahead of us at this point, but sadly Councillor Chance and his colleagues were not, and it took the intervention of a local citizen to explain the bleedin’ obvious to them.
Barry Adams was the name of the technically proficient Harrogatian in question. He submitted a statement to the North Yorkshire Council Executive explaining that “there was an ‘odd anomaly’ whereby IP addresses were shown on the petition rather than the person’s postal address if they were using a VPN.”
“Two people I know who most certainly live in Harrogate had their addresses displayed on the petition as Sunderland”, he continued before adding, “Surely there must be some way in which these misleading discrepancies, fabrications and exaggerations can be taken into account as they are extremely misleading.”
It might not sound like too much to ask, but apparently, as far as North Yorkshire Council is concerned, it is. Not only was the suggestion rejected, but Councillor David Chance even rejected the notion that VPNs were to blame.
“I pointed out that 20% of the signatures were indicated as being from outside of North Yorkshire. It’s as simple as that”, said Councillor Chance, presumably without unburying his head from the sand.
There are of course a number of other possibilities, the most obvious being Harrogate residents who were currently travelling abroad for work or pleasure.
Of course, there is the slim chance that VPN abuse could have been at play whereby one resident who wanted to make multiple objections used a VPN to create new instances.
However, it appears from the original article that appeared on The Stray Ferret that a local address was required which would mitigate against such abuse.
This level of VPN ignorance might seem astonishing to us. But the fact is that there are far too many people out there who still don’t know what a VPN is, how it works, and the myriad of security and privacy benefits that it brings them.
The fact that this ignorance can be present in people such as Councillors, who are making decisions on controversial developments like this one in Harrogate, is, of course, troubling. But the reality is that this is just the thin end of the wedge.
We have already reported this week that the US State of Virginia has just passed a law requiring age verification on adult websites, which has seen an enormous spike in VPNs after the majority of popular free adult sites simply shut up shop in the state.
The same has happened recently in the State of Utah and astonishingly this is also a policy that the UK Government is pursuing.
The fact that VPNs can be used simply and easily to bypass these restrictions seems to fly straight over most Parliamentarian’s heads. And as this ludicrous scenario in Harrogate shows, it is clearly too much for local Councillors to wrap their heads around too.
Our advice to North Yorkshire Council would be to send Councillor Chance and his colleagues off on a basic online safety course where they can learn about VPNs and how they work and enable themselves to make informed decisions about issues that matter in their local area.
If this petition is overlooked in Harrogate and this hugely controversial development is given the go-ahead by ignorant Councillors against the will of the people, it will not only damage the functioning democracy in the region, but Councillor Chance will likely be looking for a new job come the next local elections.