Some VPNs encrypt your connection to the internet, disguise your IP address, and prevent others, like the government or internet service providers (ISPs), from tracking your virtual whereabouts. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to want this degree of privacy, but you should understand what’s considered legal and illegal while using a VPN.
This article is intended to provide general, educational information and is not legal advice.
While virtual private networks may conjure images of illegal activities and mysterious figures on the dark web, in reality VPNs are currently legal to use in many countries, including the U.S. Some VPNs encrypt your connection to the internet, disguise your IP address, and prevent others, like the government or internet service providers (ISPs), from tracking your virtual whereabouts.
There are plenty of legitimate reasons to want this degree of privacy, but you should understand what’s considered legal and illegal while using a VPN.* It is the responsibility of VPN users to identify whether their use of a VPN is legal (or not), and to check their country’s laws before using a VPN.
Where are VPNs illegal?
Every country has a different stance on VPNs, and not all see them as favorable. Currently, a handful of governments either regulate or outright ban VPNs. Those currently include Belarus, China, Iraq, North Korea, Oman, Russia, and the U.A.E., to name a few. Still others impose internet censorship laws, which makes using a VPN risky.
Depending on the country, governments may impose fines on both the citizen and the VPN service provider for using an unsanctioned VPN. In addition to laws varying country by country, laws in the U.S. can vary state by state. In some countries, banks and companies are free to use VPNs. Generally, governments justify these decisions as preventing terrorist or criminal activity.
VPNs may be legal in some countries, cybercrime or infringement are not
Using a VPN in the U.S. is currently legal. However, if you use a VPN to commit an act that is illegal without a VPN, it is still illegal when using one. That may include downloading and selling copyrighted information, hacking into computers or networks without authorization, and cyberstalking. Additionally, using a VPN to circumvent a website’s or app’s technological protection measures (such as geo-locking) could violate the law in some countries, as well as the VPN’s and the website’s Terms of Service.
Use common sense. Before signing up with a VPN provider, read the Terms of Service and make sure you agree with them. The Terms will probably say you’re responsible for any illegal activity on your part, and the VPN provider may also say it will report suspected fraud or illegal activity to law enforcement. Also read the Terms and Conditions of any service you’re using, such as Netflix, to make sure you’re not in breach of its terms while using a VPN.
Is private browsing a right?
The call for a reasonable right to privacy has been simmering for several years. In 2018, Congress voted to kill regulations aimed at protecting internet privacy. As a result, companies can now sell customers’ browsing and search histories to marketers and monitor and track their web browsing habits.
Why VPNs are used
VPNs are widely used by people and organizations looking for an additional layer of internet privacy protection, and a solid VPN achieves that goal. Here are some typical reasons people use a VPN and features that make them useful.
To use public Wi-Fi privately and safely
Public Wi-Fi providers don’t usually encrypt their internet connections, meaning tech-savvy criminals with the Wi-Fi password can eavesdrop on your cyber browsing. But if you log into public Wi-Fi and then connect to a personal VPN that encrypts data, it will hide most of your private web traffic from prying eyes.
To access content anywhere, as if you were at home
If you just can’t live without watching the latest episode of your favorite series while traveling, a VPN can help you access your content as if you were in your own family room. Even though you’re on the go, some VPNs allow you to select a server in your home country. Check the Terms of Services for your VPN and streaming website, and the laws of the country where you are travelling to determine If your use presents a risk.
To maintain internet privacy
VPNs can offer some online privacy by stopping advertisers and other third parties from collecting information about you. If it’s a no-log VPN, even the service provider won’t track or log your online activities, which further increases your privacy.
To bypass restricted networks at work or school
Many U.S.-based schools and businesses impose internet-browsing rules on their students and employees as a matter of course. You can consider using a VPN if you need to access certain materials for legitimate reasons. Of course, check your company’s or school’s policies and use caution to make sure your use doesn’t violate these policies or the law.
*Disclaimer: The subject of the legality/illegality of VPNs in certain areas throughout the world is an ongoing discussion, and what’s legal today may not be next month or year. Further, this article (1) is not comprehensive and (2) should not be relied upon as legal advice to consumers, and (3) is focused on the U.S. only.
Alison Grace Johansen is a freelance writer who covers cybersecurity and consumer topics. Her background includes law, corporate governance, and publishing.
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