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Issue #837: August 6-12, 2023

Q: I own a Vizio 65″ television and installed an Amazon Firestick (3rd gen). When I attempt to connect to a streaming service, I get an error message informing me that it is being blocked by a VPN. How do I resolve this?

 – David A.
Fort Walton Beach, Florida

A:  The way you worded your question, David, makes me suspect that you didn’t intentionally install the VPN that your Firestick is complaining about. So, I think we need to start at the beginning, with an explanation of what a VPN is and what one does, and then try to give you an answer to your “how” question.

Firstly, a VPN, which is an acronym for Virtual Private Network, is both software and a service that is a way to mask and anonymize your online activity.  It does this by heavily encrypting the data moving over your Internet connection, and then routing everything through a private server, which in-turn routes the data packets to and from the remote sites on the Internet.  This has the net effect of virtually extending the private portion of your computer’s network across the public Internet, making your data unreadable to anyone that doesn’t have the encryption key, and anonymizing your location, since all your data appears to originate from the IP address of the VPN server.

If that explanation didn’t make sense, don’t sweat it.  VPNs are a complex and technical topic, not meant for the average user to understand.  But you might be wondering, anonymity and data encryption all sound like desirable traits that I want from my Internet connection!  Why wouldn’t I want a VPN?  Well, all of those benefits come at a cost.  First, it takes computer processing power to encrypt and decrypt all those data packets.  If you’re gaming online, or streaming video, the sheer number of packets, and the speed at which they arrive could easily overwhelm the processing capacity of your PC, resulting in latency and freezing-up.  Second, your Internet connection speed may suffer, since you’re bottlenecked to the speed of the remote server, rather than a free and unencumbered direct connection to the Internet.

More in-line with your problem, David, the likely reason your Amazon Firestick is refusing to work is because of the anonymity that the VPN provides.  Amazon licenses content for distribution by geographic area, and when your system is anonymized, the Firestick simply cannot tell where your computer is located.  To avoid violating the terms of their license, they simply deny you the ability to use the service.

If you didn’t install the VPN, it’s very possible some piece of malware did.  If that’s the case, it may have been collecting private information on you from the very moment it was installed.  It does this by rerouting all the data packets to and from your PC through their own private server, where they are analyzed and combed for information such as passwords, account numbers and so forth.  This all happens at lightning speed before the packets are forwarded on to their proper destination.  Any one of my readers out there could be “infected” this way, and not even know it.  The quotes are because this isn’t a malware infection in the classic sense of the word, but it was likely that it was a piece of malware that installed the VPN.

The above scenario is only a possibility, and I’m not saying that’s what is happening, because the truth is, I simply can’t know.  However, if it was me, I’d get rid of that VPN as soon as possible, both to protect myself, and to (hopefully) get that stubborn Amazon Firestick to function. 

To disable a VPN, start by pressing [WinKey]+I to open the Settings dialog. On the left-hand navigation menu, click Network & Internet. Click VPN in the main list.  This is where any VPNs that are installed will appear.  If there are more than one, repeat the below steps for each.  Select a VPN connection from the list.  Click Disconnect or Remove depending on what you want to do.

It’s worth mentioning that there are some very legitimate reasons to use a VPN, and despite what I said earlier, it is possible to use a VPN with a Firestick.  You just need to make sure that the VPN and Firestick are compatible.  One good way to start is to do a Google search on “VPN for Firestick” and go from there.

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