If you could hide your identity online, say whatever you wanted, look at whatever you wanted, download whatever you wanted, with no way of it ever getting back to you, would you do it?
Well, there is a way to do that and it is called Virtual Private Network or VPN for short. It is a technology that puts a third party server between you and the Internet. It allows you to remain anonymous online. So if you can download whatever you want, stream content from anywhere, make anonymous comments, hide your identity (basically all the good stuff) why is it not illegal?
Great question ! The answer can be both easy and complicated. Let’s start with the really complicated and, by far, my favorite answer. It was written by Stan Hanks on Quora and, while I am confident his answer makes sense, I have only a vague idea what he really said. That is entirely my fault, I am sure. His basic premise is that you can legislate against the use of VPNs but trying to enforce that legislation would be futile. He then continues with a technical explanation why he believes that is the case.
First, let’s look at what a VPN really is.
Simply put a Virtual Private Network (or VPN) is software that enables you to establish an encrypted connection to a server. This server then forwards your traffic to the Internet or any other destination of your choosing (a corporate network for example) and channels responses back to you, allowing you to remain anonymous and the data sent to remain private between you and your VPN server.
What do people commonly use VPNs for?
In contrast to what you might think, most people use VPNs to access region restricted content or download copyrighted entertainment, basically the stuff the copyright police is all up in arms about.
Other uses are protecting the privacy of your Internet connection, circumventing firewalls, securely accessing corporate networks, hiding your real identity and the like…
So, if it is not illegal, does that mean using a VPN is legal?
In the strictest sense of the law the answer is clearly “yes.” The problem is that the question is vague and therefore the answer probably meaningless. However, the question is important because it can mean the difference between freedom and, for some people, prosecution.
In the strictest sense “legal” refers to the law and laws are specific to each country. This means there is no single answer to the legality of VPNs, because the answer is country specific. Fortunately there are very few countries that legally forbid the use of VPNs. If you live in one of those countries you probably already know. For the rest, and vast majority, of us encrypting our Internet traffic is completely legal.
But I can use it for illegal purposes?
Yes you could – just as you can legally own and use a gun to protect yourself, which is perfectly legal at least in the US, or choose to murder someone with it, which is clearly illegal. Just because a technology can be used for illegal purposes, doesn’t make the technology itself illegal. Let your moral compass be the judge.
So what about downloading copyrighted content?
Many people are unaware that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act is a US-specific law, signed into effect by US President Bill Clinton in 1998. While copyright holders love to make it appear as if the DMCA applies worldwide, that is simply not the case; therefore, unless you are in the United States you will not be getting any DMCA notices…ever!
This does not mean that you can safely pirate copyrighted material, but it makes it very difficult for US-based copyright holders to pursue illegal downloaders outside the United States because they will have to go through the legal process of the country the pirate is located in, which in most cases isn’t worth the effort.
But I got a letter from a lawyer demanding money?
Then there is the issue of copyright trolls. Copyright trolls are entities that either own copyrights or represent copyright holders (or claim to do so), often in an unduly aggressive and opportunistic manner, for the sole purpose of making money through litigation.
They often send cleverly written, threatening letters offering an out of court settlement for a reduced fine instead of a scary-sounding lawsuit with an unpredictable outcome.
The best thing you can do if you receive such a letter is to toss it. Yes I said it…toss it! Let them pursue their phony claims in court. Chances are they won’t, as it’s just too much work to deal with troublemakers like you!
Isn’t violating terms and conditions illegal?
Violating a company’s terms and conditions is not the same as breaking the law (unless of course you are committing an illegal offense in the process). Which brings us to streaming content that wasn’t intended for you, or, in other words, watching content that isn’t available in your part of the world can be a violation of a company’s terms. For example, using a VPN in Germany is legal, but accessing the BBC’s iPlayer from Germany in the UK violates the BBC’s iPlayer terms and conditions. Streaming the US version of Netflix outside the US is another great example, a practice Netflix publicly condemns, but also earns money from.
There are many more examples of violating a company’s terms and conditions: examples are downloading copyrighted movies from torrent sites, sending SPAM, illegal computer hacking, any type of fraud, executing DDoS attacks, dealing drugs, selling arms… you get the idea. Many of those cases are clearly spelled out on your VPN provider’s terms and conditions page. But, bluntly put, even your VPN provider is making money off people who are violating their terms and conditions and certainly reserve the right to suspend or even terminate an offender’s account, and yes, it does happen.
However, all of these companies are walking a tight line between legal and illegal uses of their services that they have to balance with protecting their user’s privacy and, of course, company profits. So, where does that leave us?
Using a VPN is perfectly legal unless you live in one of those few countries that has laws that prohibit the use of it (Iran or Saudi Arabia for example), but don’t let clever rhetoric confuse you. Even if it were illegal, enforcement would be difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish.
What you use a legal technology for is, as always, entirely up to you. Just like with guns in the US, you can use a VPN for legal or illegal purposes, and you do so at your own peril.
Be aware of the difference between breaking the law and violating a company’s terms and conditions. Breaking the law can land you in jail while violating some company’s terms might get your account suspended.
In the coming months and years we will see a flurry of articles and legislative proposals surrounding these issues. Content providers are already lobbying heavily for legislation protecting their profits in many parts of the world (currently in Australia, where Netflix just opened up shop), trying to enlist ISPs to do their bidding, attempting to outlaw VPN services, criminalizing circumventing geo-restrictions etc. The Internet doesn’t work that way and unless they update their business models to better reflect the current state of affairs, they will, sooner or later, be out of said, not models, but business. Chances are they will win a few battles, but I predict they will loose the war.
Image Credit: Tori Rector