According to recent news from India, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs is reportedly asking the Indian government to effectively greenlight a ban on VPN services across the country. The reason for imposing such a ban? VPN apps and tools are readily available online which gives criminals anonymity online. And over in Russia, we recently witnessed authorities blocking access to six VPN services, including NordVPN and Express VPN. Apparently, this move by the Russian government reflected its desire to control the internet and block access to so-called prohibited information and resources. Without pinpointing exactly the nature of such resources, the government cited extremism, narcotics and child pornography as examples.
So, are we simply witnessing another round of VPN-bashing by regimes who are ultimately looking to limit internet freedom for their citizens? Or are their arguments credible and worth the loss of non-criminal user privacy?
Ultimately, practically any technology can be misused or used in ways not intended by its creators. So, yes, drug dealers can easily encrypt communication devices to continue dealing drugs without worrying about detection—so could a human trafficker, for example. But VPNs were not designed merely as tools for criminals that wanted to cover their tracks (and, actually, Tor would be much more suitable for anonymity, in this case). The majority of VPN users are looking to enhance their privacy and avoid being subjected to constant government surveillance.
It is no exaggeration to suggest that many millions of consumers and businesses rely on VPNs for essential online protection. The overwhelming majority of VPN use is for legal and legitimate purposes and gets no reaction from the government or coverage by the press. But as soon as criminal activity hits the headlines, then the very small minority of VPN abuse is highlighted. Most companies use VPN services to secure their networks and digital assets from the hacking community. The benefits of a VPN service are extensive for any organization looking to secure its networks. And with the massive changes that the COVID-19 pandemic brought to bear on working practices all over the globe, VPN services provided easy-to-deploy, robust solutions for employees working from home (WFH) using largely unsecured home internet connections.
The kind of reaction seen recently in both India and Russia, whereby those in power seek to limit (or even block) access to the internet, is a direct attack on freedom of speech. VPNs are actually one of the few tools available to people when other types of internet restrictions are in place. For example, earlier in the year, data from Hide.me VPN revealed a 900% increase in Ugandan citizens using their service to access the internet. This came amid a nationwide internet shutdown during the run-up to the country’s controversial elections. Ugandans faced internet blackouts and turned to VPN services to communicate. If authorities quelled or blocked VPN services altogether, they are extinguishing the last hope for many citizens to enjoy complete internet freedom. VPNs can help users reclaim their rights by allowing them to bypass any restrictions on social media, for example. Other Hide.me data revealed a spike in use of VPN services that correlated with authorities clamping down on social media access—a clear reflection of the will of the people seeking to regain control over their internet access.
In authoritarian regimes, governments will continue to abuse their power by restricting internet freedom when it suits them. There will always be excuses—quelling protesters who dare to have a different point of view or using morality arguments if the government doesn’t like a particular subject. In myriad situations where we see this behaviour occurring, remember that VPN services often provide relief for those citizens affected—a means for their voices to be heard; a way for their protests not to fall on deaf ears and, ultimately, to give them true internet freedom. So, the next time you read a headline about criminals abusing VPN services or see an article alluding to VPN services being used as a smokescreen for nefarious activity, remember that for the vast majority of people, VPNs do only good. This is technology that provides security for individuals and businesses and, in many instances, allows citizens to reclaim their internet freedom.