If you’ve been accessing American Netflix from outside the UK, you will  most likely have been using a virtual private network (VPN) in order to make the Netflix servers mistakenly believe you are accessing from inside the country. It’s not the biggest crime anyone committed online, but it’s technically a “tiny bit dodgy.” Hola is one such VPN service and is a popular choice for people outside the U.S who want to watch American content. It also works the other way round with people from outside the U.K who want to access BBC iPlayer content. How does Hola work? Hola is a free VPN service and works much the same way as most other VPNs, with one crucial difference. In order to deliver the service for free, Hola uses your computer’s idle bandwidth to serve other users, instead of paying for and maintaining its own network of servers. It’s effectively a P2P VPN. That’s how it can offer the service without charging. So, when you’re accessing Netflix America, you’re being routed through a Hola user’s computer in America (probably while they’re at work or asleep, owing to the time differences). While you’re asleep, Hank from Arkansas is catching up on Eastenders. That way, neither you nor Hank have to pay to use Hola and you both get to watch the content you want, for free.

Hang on, that sounds fair enough. What’s the problem?

The problem is that Hola appears to have been flogging surplus bandwidth (yours and Hank’s idle computers) to a third party called Luminati. Unlike Hola, Luminati is more than a “tiny bit dodgy.” Using your computer (and poor old Hank’s) computer as an exit node, they’ve been carrying out botnet attacks across the Internet.

What’s a botnet attack?

It’s a means of raising an ‘army’ of computers to perform a specific, typically malicious attack. For example, by forwarding massive amounts of spam or executing a distributed denial of service (Ddos) attack by having millions of computers all attempt to access a website at the same time, bringing it down and preventing the intended users from accessing it. Oh crap, so now what do I do? Uninstall Hola. Instructions for this vary according to your browser and operating system, but there’s plenty of info online to help you. Google is your friend here. Even if, as Hola has actually promised, they never let Luminati access your computer again, your machine remains compromised until you remove Hola. Once used as an exit node there is a chance that your computer may be hacked or used for spying purposes. Don’t take the risk. I really want to carry on watching American Netflix, what are my options? You can use a server-based VPN network, of which there are many options. The majority of providers offer a free tier but do not rely on P2P structures to route traffic. You might be absolutely bombarded with adverts, but at least you'll be safe. If you’re not keen on the free option anymore, you’re looking at around £30 a year to use a VPN. If you like the idea of sharing your spare bandwidth for good rather than evil, check out BOINIC from Berkley University in America. By signing up to this project, you don’t get American Netflix but you do get to provide spare CPU cycles from your machine to help researchers find cures for diseases, study climate change and generally do good work.