Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are to internet users as the invisibility cloak was to Harry Potter. They serve as encryption for your internet connection and virtual protection to stop you from being tracked or hacked while online. In essence, they cover your tracks digitally. However, this begets the question – are VPNs legal in all situations? And if not then under what circumstances and/or places is it illegal to use a VPN?
Article quick links:
- Common uses for VPNs
- Is it legal to use a VPN with a streaming service (like Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime)?
- In which countries are VPNs illegal?
- How to protect your privacy online with a VPN
- Practical steps to improve your privacy and protection online
What are the common uses for a VPN?
Situations in which your online privacy demands protection are typical use cases for VPNs. These include evading a government with restrictive speech and information allowances, your internet provider, or third party sites that may track you for targeted advertising. While legitimate uses for VPNs provide convenience, privacy and public WiFi protection for users ranging from everyday internet browsers to serious journalists trying to bypass pesky red tape on their hunt for information.
Of course, this technology as with any, can be used for less laudable purposes…
Seeking possession of illegal drugs, purchasing of chemical or biological weapons, or access to government-protected documents are obvious illegal uses of VPNs, even in countries with highly permissive VPN laws like the United States.
However, more frequent illegal use cases include the use of your VPN to hide your location while downloading or “torrenting” movies, TV shows or software. Technically you can also accidentally breach a company’s terms of service by using a VPN, for example while Netflix-ing away a slow Friday night when traveling overseas.
Below, we dive into the legalities and loopholes of VPN usage across countries and content categories with hypothetical real-life illustrations.
Is it legal to use a VPN with your favorite content streaming platform?
The answer to this question for most readers is no, it is not illegal to use a VPN, but in doing so you may be breaking the terms of service for your streaming account.
Movie and entertainment distribution resembles that of a feudal farming system in which Landowning Lords preside over their precious acres with full control of access. In the same way, viewing rights are fiercely guarded by local TV networks and rarely sold to more than one platform or country. Since distributors cannot sell the same rights twice (unlike technology intellectual property which can be licensed to multiple commercial entities for development), streaming platforms like Netflix can only show content in one location since the licensing right to that content is controlled by local TV networks. The spotty patchwork of licensing rights is why an American-produced film on Netflix watched through a VPN in a foreign country often breaches terms of the contract.
For example, if a traveler with a US Netflix account streams Zombieland from Singapore, then the Singoporean distributors of that movie would argue that they lose money, and so the terms of Netflix’ use state that “you may [only] view the Netflix content primarily within the country in which you have established your account and only in geographic locations where [Netflix] offers [their] service and have licensed such content.” – Of course, this argument doesn’t sit well with consumers because you most likely wouldn’t have signed up for a new streaming account in a country you were only visiting anyway so there would be no lose of income.
You will sometimes receive a proxy error if watching Netflix through any VPN, as the company tries to tightened its grip on geolocation-based breaches of contract, but they generally have limited success with this approach and attempts have caused a backlash from consumers who “just want to watch my show man!”.
Other streaming platforms like Amazon Prime Video, Hulu and Disney + channel face similar dilemmas for frequent fliers. Unfortunately, there is no simple legal remedy for this bizarre and very anti-consumer state of affairs, so many travellers actively use VPNs to gain the access they want while travelling despite the knowledge that it is technically illegal.
It is worth mentioning that some channels, like Amazon Prime Video, do offer a “Watch While Abroad” option for legality-conscious users of VPNs. Although these methods do not offer the traveling cinephile the same abundance and variety of entertainment options, it does provide a strong safeguard against accidental breaches to services of contract and licensing agreements.
In which countries are VPNs illegal?
VPNs are not legal in all countries. It is illegal to actually license and use a VPN in Belarus, China, Iraq, North Korea, Russia, Turkey, and Turkmenistan. Other countries that allow users access to only select VPN providers include United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Iran.
But it is also a little more complicated that simply whether VPNs are legal in a particular jurisdiction because this question combines questions of legality pertaining to service contracts, licensing rights, and type of content accessed.
Perhaps the most commonly asked question is whether VPN usage is legal in the People’s Republic of China?
With its sensitive political history and totalitarian approach to censorship, it is no wonder that China’s “Great Firewall” has been initially a source of angst and frustration for some of its more progressive citizens and visitors. VPNs do offer a welcome respite to leap over the “Great Firewall” and access sites like Google, Facebook, YouTube, less than savory tidbits about China’s political history, and a long list of banned websites.
However, in 2017 the Chinese government mandated the blockage of all VPN service providers since which time the VPN providers have played a game of cat and mouse with Chinese censors. Sometimes the CCP is ahead of the game and VPN use is difficult in China, other times the VPN providers are able to provide service without any trouble. It is noteworthy that the CCP knows well that many of the largest companies in China need to use VPNs so they can access critical services required to grow their businesses internationally so they happily turn a blind eye to a lot of commercial users of VPN services.
The other countries on this list have a common thread in their ruling systems – most operate as monarchial or totalitarian regimes, which means traveling and residing there comes with its own set of social and digital behavioral regulations. For example, Iraq has been known to shut down the internet entirely regardless of whether the VPN usages were for benign purposes or illegal activities, while other countries follow a more moderate approach of only cracking down on high threat individuals that seek to access dangerous resources or incendiary information using VPNs. However, the latter group often masks their pseudo-tolerance of VPN usage under the pretense of permitting freedom of speech and access to information, while punishing people for conducting activities for which VPNs were originally intended. Thus, even in countries like the UAE that permits VPN usage as long as it is not for purposes of committing a crime, parameters that constitute a crime are akin to the unequivocally restrictive seen in countries like China and Iraq.
More VPN friendly countries include the United States, Canada, Australia and most of Europe, especially the western European nations. Countries peppered with touchy historical trauma and ruled by a government or legal system that deviates from democratic ideals often have the most restrictive VPN (and internet) usage policies.
Protecting your online privacy with a VPN
While users like to believe that VPNs do not track user data with logs, the truth is more nuanced. Imagine Harry Potter donning the Invisibility Cloak only to discover later that Lord Voldemort secretly installed a miniature geo-tracker device inside the cloak to document his whereabouts as he snuck around Diagon Alley. This makes moot the original point of using a digital Invisibility Cloak. Users need to be aware that the very shield we use to protect our privacy may actually open up a Pandora’s Box of increased risk for privacy breaches.
In one example, PureVPN, a VPN provider that denies it ever “monitors user activity nor keep any logs” and never “keeps records of anything that could associate any specific activity to a specific user” found itself in hot water when the Department of Justice arrested an individual suspected of cyberstalking based on records that the department found in log files provided by PureVPN. Though the removal of cyberstalking threats is of course an action to be applauded in making the internet a safer experience for everyone, this action calls into question the true nature of anonymity for VPN users.
Perhaps we are not as invisible as we would like to believe. Similar to the First Amendment in its defense for the right to freedom of speech and press, we find through real-life rulings by the Supreme Court that no speech is truly free in its totality, nor any law absolute in its application. Similarly, VPN users should be mindful of conflicting contracts, regulations and policies that could negate the seemingly airtight claim many VPN services advertise about not tracking user activity and interactions with digital content.
While not a surefire protection against getting stuck with a VPN server that logs your internet use, below are some ways to increase your awareness of VPNs that may be harvesting data and documenting your use:
- Does your VPN provider enforce restrictions? While this is not an automatic red flag for logging activity, some types of restrictions like bandwidth ones often require logging. Other restrictive parameters, like connection restrictions, do not.
- Legal jurisdictions in certain countries can mandate VPN providers to log and monitor user activities without the need to disclose to users about this course of action. This type of jurisdiction is often country specific and called a “gag order” because users are unaware of and not informed of logging activities. The United States and the United Kingdom are examples of two such countries with gag orders for VPN user log tracking.
- Free VPNs may put you at risk for selling our data to third parties and government entities. All VPN providers are businesses at heart, so if you are not paying for usage, then someone or some entity is paying for the upkeep of that service. While free may seem enticing, proceed at your own caution!
VPN logging and reporting to government entities reside in a nebulous legal realm, where regulations often seek to strike a balance between user privacy and cyber threat mitigation. At best, these regulations are muddled and vary significantly by country and each user’s “threat level.” Each interaction between the VPN provider and the specific user presents a unique scenario, thus the most conservative course of action is to double-check the fine print and legal jurisdictions in each location that you plan to use your VPN.
What is considered legal depends on the main tenants of geography, content type, and from which entity this judgment is referenced from. For example, legal by government standards does not automatically grant legality when referenced from media licensing standards. A user can be operating within perfect federal legality if he or she uses a VPN to stream Netflix in the United Kingdom, but this is a direct breach of Netflix’s service contract, which only permits users to view content in the country in which it was produced. Thus, this user will still be in hot water (with Netflix, not with the government) if they travel to Scotland and watch Zombieland using a VPN.
Some reminders for users of VPNs to protect themselves from both legality issues and privacy leaks include the following:
For protection against breach of user privacy:
- Multi-hop VPN services mask outgoing in incoming traffic using a tiered configuration system, providing additional layers of digital protection in addition to those offered by traditional VPN servers. Examples include ZorroVPN and Perfect Privacy. These advanced VPN servers offer varying layers of configurations, ranging on average from two to four-hop configurations.
- Employ multiple VPNs servers. This concept is similar to multi-hop VPN servers in that both add extra layers of security. But the similarities end there – while multi-hop VPN servers are single VPNs with tiered configurations (think of papers of paper glued together to form a cardboard sheet), while multiple VPN servers employ, as the name suggests, more than one individual VPN threaded together (much like several pearls on a string to form a finished necklace). The latter schema can be created by setting up VPN number one on a router, which connects to your computer that is linked to VPN number two. Performance hits and increased lag time will be major drawbacks to this workaround.
- Using VPNs in jurisdiction-friendly countries. However, this is no guarantee, as with any precaution, that the permissive country in which you are operating may not cooperate with authorities of another country that demands your information.