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A few countries around the world have started implementing a VPN ban. They claim to do this to protect against continued content copyright infringement and other violations. But banning VPNs also puts users at great risk. VPNs are now the most reliable tools that people have to secure themselves online. A VPN ban may help them to prevent criminals from using VPN technology, but it also leaves innocent users unprotected.
Some countries around the world are implementing Internet filters to regulate the flow of information. These countries that restrict their citizens’ access to a variety of content on the Internet are foiled by VPN technology. Internet users are looking to VPNs to regain the Internet freedoms they have lost. To prevent the circumvention of their filters and firewalls, some of these countries have decided to ban VPN services. They instead offer a state-sponsored VPN service that is open to certain businesses and individuals. In this way they can offer protection to Internet users. The problem is that these services do not guarantee their users’ privacy. In fact, user tracking and monitoring is very common in these cases. These countries have data sharing deals with those who are running the VPN service. They arrange to get access to logs of user activities so they can spy on users.
Preventing Piracy Versus Securing Privacy
Many people use VPN technology to protect themselves from online threats. There is a wide range of threats that users face online every day. And they all boil down to data privacy. Hacker attacks, phishing scams, online fraud and data mining all start with data privacy breaches. People rely more and more on VPN technology to help them stay anonymous online to prevent these attacks on their data. A VPN ban would take away the best tool that they have for securing their online activity.
Many governments are focused on preventing online crime, and this is good for everyone. But zoning in on VPNs as tools that criminals use is a narrow view. A VPN ban would make it more difficult for scammers, data pirates and hackers to stay hidden. But it also exposes everyone else, who are their targets. The question is whether the privacy rights of the majority should be compromised because this makes it easier to curb the activities of the few.
Most Internet users have already heard all about PRISM and XKeyscore and the online snooping activities of different government agencies and a variety of companies. Users know that their activities online are no longer private. And they have turned to VPN services to block the threats that put their privacy at risk. Emails and instant messages have long been intercepted by snoopers for the valuable data they contain. This data is used to develop advertising strategies and to steal from people. In all the time that this has been going on, governments have failed to secure users online. Now that users have found the solution to their online privacy, these governments are thinking about taking it away.
We have been told that allowing the government to access our data is necessary in the fight against crimes like hacking and terrorism. But they have not, in all this time, been able to offer any degree of real protection to the average Internet user. And Internet users now feel even more violated because they realize that even the government is hacking their accounts and stealing data. And now that people have taken online security into their own hands, governments want to implement a VPN ban.
Anyone who knows anything about Internet privacy knows that data encryption is what lies at the heart of it. There are many data encryption tools out there that help people keep their data safe. VPNs are just one of these tools, popular because they are a comprehensive solution to online data privacy. Most people who use VPNs are not criminals hiding from the law or scammers planning financial fraud schemes. They are simply using VPNs because they don’t want to be spied on. People don’t want to become victims of social engineering scams or to have their data collected and processed without authorization so companies can stick ads in their faces. Data encryption through VPNs is just another part of life these days.
And then there are other Internet users whose lives depend on using reliable online data encryption technology. What would happen to journalists and researchers who investigate crimes? What would protect human rights advocates and remote or travelling workers? What happens to these people who stick their necks out for all our sakes when a VPN ban is implemented?
Alternatives to a VPN Ban
A VPN ban cannot be the solution to the dark side of encryption technology that allows criminals to remain hidden. But this brings us back to the debate over data privacy since the alternative is allowing government access to all user data. This is an invasion of privacy that most people will not tolerate. And it puts the people who need to stay hidden for good reason in grave danger. Giving a decryption key to anyone, government or otherwise, can put sensitive data in the hands of those who would use it to hurt innocent people. Especially for individuals and organizations who work to uncover human rights violations, putting the key into the hands of the authorities is akin to signing their death warrants.
We already know from or own experiences with Internet data laws and data mining policies how difficult it is to get the right formula. Much legislation has been the cause of protests. Many drafts have been scrapped because they fail to strike a fair balance. There is always a problem with either the inability to track down criminals or potential privacy breaches that put users at greater risk. There is also the problem of clarity over what exactly a law covers. We are always in danger of the law being manipulated to include other crimes or cover other investigations. We have seen how the actions of people like Kiriakou, Snowden and Miranda fighting for others’ rights have been twisted into criminal acts. We have seen how helpful services like Lavabit and Groklaw have been bullied by the manipulation of the law.
With these options, we can see why the debate rages on. Governments are not happy allowing both innocents and criminals to keep their online privacy. The authorities cannot be trusted to always do what is right. And the tools that are now protecting people from threats cannot be taken away from them. What we need is a fourth solution that gives governments what they need to catch criminals while preserving people’s right to protect themselves online.