The age of the internet and technology has made life a lot easier for many of us, but it comes with its own risks. A lot of websites and apps require sensitive information, like name, email, phone number and, if you’re shopping, credit card details. On doing so you open yourself to the possibility of identity theft. It seems nowadays that a VPN is the best solution available, but is it legal?
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network, it masks your IP address so that anyone who may be eavesdropping on your internet activity, including your ISP, will not be able to see which sites you’re visiting.
Most VPNs give you the option to choose the location and server you would like to use. After selecting the location all your information is encrypted and passed through a series of servers that even your ISP cannot track. The best VPNs work with end-to-end encryption, as it is the case with the VPN provider of our choice, ExpressVPN.
A VPN can also help you access content or websites that are restricted in your region. For instance, if you are in Europe and you want to access content that is only available to people in the US, you can set your location to the US and trick the website into believing you are there. But some apps and websites are capable of detecting if you are using a VPN service and may block your access.
VPNs are legal in most countries but there are a few where they aren’t and getting caught using one can earn you some jail time. Some governments try to limit the spread of softwares that may hinder their ability to track the online activities of its citizens. It doesn’t come as a surprise that VPN use is then made illegal. These governments do have a plausibly legitimate reason for criminalizing VPN services, as people carrying out illegal activities online can take advantage of the anonymity provided by these services to go on undetected. In some countries where using VPNs is fully legal, the VPN service providers have to follow strict guidelines laid out by the government on how they operate.
VPNs can help to mask illegal activity but they do offer a lot of benefits that make keeping them legal worthwhile. The following are the advantages of using VPNs:
When you use a VPN your IP address is masked, so you can rest assured nobody is monitoring your online activity. In this age where privacy is such a hot topic, VPNs offer the way to maintain your privacy online. Including privacy from your own government, giving you a safe haven from censorship.
VPNs make it possible for you to protect yourself when you are surfing the internet. Even big corporations, from hospitals to banks, use VPNs to keep their information secure and safe from any external attacks. With the increase of work from home (largely brought about by Covid), VPNs become extremely useful by allowing employees to access the company’s data from home with minimized risks for the company’s proprietary information.
Let us now highlight some countries where VPNsare illegal and discuss the reasons why.
Iraq is well known for its almost unceasing terrorist activity. In an attempt to curb terrorism, the Iraqi government has completely banned the use of VPNs, since they can be used to hide anti government activities. Though it has been a while since ISIS’ most active years, these bans are still in place, but they only seem to affect the average citizen as government officials and big corporations are allowed to use VPN services.
In the UAE the use of VPNs is very tightly regulated. The government states to have banned the use of VPNs in an attempt to prevent its citizens from accessing content deemed unfit, or secretly conduct illegal activities online. Illegal services in the UAE include WhatsApp audio and video call function, Skype and others. Only the government or organizations authorized by the government are allowed to use VPNs in the country.
It is now a criminal act for an average citizen to use a VPN in the UAE and if caught, they can be fined a minimum of 500 000 dirhams ( equivalent to $136,129) or even face jail time.
All VPNs are completely and utterly banned in Russia. The country banned the use of VPNs citing the necessity of blocking the spread of false information online. This move by the Russian government is meant to assert total dominance and control over the internet and to make it easy for the Russian government to filter out any undesirable content that it does not want the Russian citizens to have access to.
The Russian government also has a reputation of keeping tabs on its citizens watching their online activity, therefore, anything that hides this online activity is automatically banned. Most, if not all VPNs, have stopped operating in Russia. There are steep fines for anyone found breaking the law.
VPN use in Turkey has been completely banned since 2018. The government has been making efforts to ban all social media platforms, consequently, they needed to to stop the media from being accessed by other means. It is a country known for its heavy censorship, even good old content focused websites and cloud storage platforms have been blocked in an attempt to tighten control over the information citizens are exposed to.
Uganda stands out because its reasons for blocking VPNs are not the usual. VPNs use is partially blocked in Uganda. That is due to a move from the government to impose a tax on social media usage. In an act of defiance, a large part of the public resorted to VPN use to hide their digital identity while accessing social media.
The Ugandan government responded by imposing a ban on VPN use. Internet Service Providers in Uganda were instructed to block VPN users, those who wouldn’t comply would be fined. Due to Uganda’s inability to enforce the law you’re very unlikely to be fined. VPN use in the country remains only banned on paper.
In Oman the use of VPNs by individuals is completely banned. In fact, the use of any encryption device is illegal and can result in a fine of 500 Omani Rial (about $1,300) for individuals and 1000 Omani Rial ($2,600) for companies. There’s even cases where individuals do get arrested for it.
VPNs can only be used by approved organizations that have gone through the most stringent application processes to gain the TRA’s (Telecommunication Regulation Authority) authorization. These companies need first be vetted before they are allowed to legally use VPNs. The TRA is not required to give any reasons as to why an application is rejected. In Oman, even basic internet access is regulated and citizens are heavily censored.
The use of VPNs in China is strictly regulated. China’s stringent rules go as far as banning or regulating some foreign-based websites and applications, including the likes of Tiktok and Facebook. In an attempt to prevent citizens from circumventing its regulations China has made VPN use illegal unless government authorization has been granted, which is the case for some service providers. Most VPNs cannot keep up with China’s firewall and anyone found using a VPN without authorization can be arrested.
In Belarus VPNs are completely banned. The government official statement as the reason for it is preventing the spread of false information. They did not only ban VPNs, they also banned proxies and Tors, which also offer online anonymity. The ban on VPNs, proxies, and the Tor browser goes against their own constitution, as it clearly states no censorship shall be permitted.
The Internet Service Providers have to be careful not to offer any service that is banned by the government. Failure to do so can result in hefty fines. The citizens too are liable to face consequences if caught using banned apps and services.
It should come as no surprise North Korea has banned the use of VPNs. A long list of platforms and services are banned in the country and VPNs would clearly be in that list. Even internet access and phone service in general are only accessible to a small elite minority.
The countries listed here are only just part of countries restricting VPNs’ use. Countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkmenistan also have tight restrictions or total bans on VPNs.
VPNs are generally the safest way to protect yourself when using the internet as they are faster and more secure than using proxies or public Wi-Fi. On the flip side, it is possible that using the wrong VPN could be worse than using none at all. Nowadays in cyberspace, if you are not paying, you very often are the product.
Free VPN apps are more likely to keep track of your data. All your personal information could be sold to the highest bidder.
Using a VPN is generally legal but some countries do tightly restrict or ban them. If you decide to travel to a different country, it would be advisable to quickly familiarize yourself with their rules and regulations to avoid unknowingly carrying out illegal activities.
VPNs do have their downside but the pros do outweigh the cons, which explains why most countries don’t criminalize their use.