Are VPNs Legal?

Are Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) Legal?

Using a virtual private network, or VPN, is something millions of Internet consumers use every day to ensure their rights to free speech, to protect important personal, financial and business information, and to add an extra layer of privacy and cybersecurity to their digital lives. 

What Do VPNs Do?

  • Your normal Internet service provider (ISP) broadcasts a signal of your location with an individualized address, but using a VPN masks that signal by changing it to a new location—thus giving you privacy. 
  • VPNs allow you to connect to a server of your choice (even in another country) so that your identity is anonymized.  They help you “unblock” websites where companies have established geo-restrictions
  • Using a VPN will protect all your private data while using the Internet, even while using a public WiFi or a hotspot setup. 
  • VPNs mask your ISP, payment information, passwords, emails, and social media and search history so you cannot be accused of breaking censorship or journalism laws in countries like China or Bahrain.

A Brief History of VPNs:

If you’ve heard dubious rumors about VPNs, or are convinced their use goes hand-in-hand with crime, consider their origin. VPNs were initially used as private networks for reputable businesses and government agencies. Plain and simple. They were designed for privacy and security. Not for crime.

VPNs still get a bad rap.  What is behind this reputation? 

For one, you may be hearing sensationalized and biased news coverage about VPNs or TOR-type browsers that give you access to private marketplaces like Silk Road, and cryptocurrencies used for illegal purchases. 

Sure, crimes happen, but the media likes to demonize what it doesn’t understand, because scary headlines sell more ad space.  Use your head and stay safe. 

Using a VPN to access the Deep Web isn’t in itself illegal.  However, because the Deep Web (web content not accessible by standard browsers) is adjacent to the Dark Web (secret and illegal content), you should exercise caution if you choose to browse, even if just for curiosity.   

So, are VPNs Actually Legal to Use?

VPNs are legal in most countries, but just like any other legal service or product, there’s an inherent potential to either solve or create a problem.  Fire can heat your home or decimate a forest. Cryptocurrencies (like Bitcoin) can be used for donating to an online fundraiser, but can also help criminals buy and sell on illicit black markets. 

Think of it this way— simply using the Internet itself is categorically legal in the U.S. (and in most countries), but you could use the Internet for all kinds of crimes.  Likewise, VPNs are essentially private Internet servers that mask your IP address and encrypt identifiable data to keep you safe. But just like a normal web browser, VPNs could be a tool for crime— in the wrong hands.

So, the legal answer depends not only and how you use them, but also where you use them. Are they legal to use in Russia or Saudi Arabia?  No, their governments totally forbid them.  China?  Rarely—you can use VPNs, but with several restrictions and prior approval needed, and little assurance of actual privacy from government spying.  

Are VPNs legal in the U.S.?

Yes, because our Constitution gives us robust free speech and privacy rights. But let’s go over some caveats. 

“Legal to use” doesn’t mean you won’t potentially be put on a “watch list,” and it doesn’t mean the VPN you chose is secure enough to protect you from would-be snoopers.

Keep in mind that as far as public opinion is concern, perception is reality.  So, if you someone wants to malign your character for simply using a VPN, they could imply you were doing something illegal even if you weren’t.

Once you establish that you can legally use a VPN in your homeland (or a country you’re visiting), you should next establish what activities are legal to conduct while using that VPN— and whether you trust that VPN to not log or sell your data.  

Fortunately, there are plenty of professional experts of these kinds of software and online services who can help you identify which VPNs are trustworthy—and which have a known record of shoddy security practices.  When considering whether to use a VPN, you’ll want to pay special attention details about the following:

  • Are there online activities that are legal in some countries but not in others?   Remember that free speech laws don’t exist in most countries outside the U.S.  Even in Canada, you can be summoned by their Human Rights Counsel for posting controversial jokes.  And you don’t want to tempt fate as a whistle-blowing journalist in China.  Some countries also ban the use of cryptocurrencies, so whether you’re on a VPN or not, you have to be sure your activities are legal in that country as well.
  • Does my VPN have strict no-logging policies?  If they don’t, they may be sharing data with an unfriendly government or selling your info to the highest bidder, which defeats the purpose of using a VPN legally.
  • Does my VPN have favorable jurisdictional protection? In other words, you want a VPN that is not hosted out of a Five/Nine/Fourteen-Eyes Alliance country, which are known for spying on online users.  (More on these government alliances below.)
  • Does my VPN encourage hacking/torrenting/downloading of copyrighted material?  If so, it may be a trap set up by a government-run VPN, designed to prosecute content pirates.  Remember, piracy is illegal, so you shouldn’t be doing it and your VPN should not be encouraging it.

What are 5/9/14 Eyes Alliances?

The terms 5- 9- or 14-Eyes Alliances refer to intelligence-sharing national governments that spy on Internet users. Avoid using VPNs who use servers that are based in these countries. A trustworthy VPN will tell you where its operations and servers are based.

Why are some countries stricter about VPN use?

It varies country to country, but often includes religious-based obscenity laws, totalitarian government censorship, suppression of free journalism, and so on.

What are the penalties for using VPNs in countries that ban them.

It varies by country. You could get a small fine,mbe imprisoned or sometimes executed (North Korea), depending on the harshness of the laws and whether you simple browsed with a VPN or you also did something illegal like buying illegal explosives, etc.

What are some common LEGAL uses for VPNs?

  • Protecting government or corporate security and privacy.  Many government agencies and companies will use VPNs, especially if their employees do remote work at home after hours.  This allows for secure access to their private servers without worry of interceding cybersecurity risks like hackers or family members who don’t have permission to view certain content.
  • Protecting journalists from censorship laws that could land them in jail (or worse) just for reporting the truth.  Journalists around the world have landed themselves in hot water for reporting on controversial government and military activities, especially if they post stories under their own credentials.  Contacting sources, gathering research and reporting the stories is more secure if done with a VPN.
  • Protecting your important personal information.  You probably lock important documents like bills, financial docs and birth records in safes, and destroy any identifying refuse with a shredder so they can’t be pilfered by identity thieves.  Using VPNs offers you the same protection online as safes and shredders do in your home.
  • Establishing a secure connection when using public WiFi.  Public hotspots and free WiFi at cafes and stores is convenient, but these signals are notoriously unsecure and thus easy to hack.  Personal banking and sensitive transactions should never be done over public Wifi unless you have a VPN.
  • Protecting your devices from ransomware, Trojans, viruses and spam.  VPNs help encrypt your data and serve as an added firewall that helps your antivirus protection work better.

What uses are considered ILLEGAL? 

  • Pirating trademarked and copyrighted materials.
  • Accessing certain types of adult content.
  • Purchasing illegal items (drugs) or services (prostitutes, assassins).
  • Hacking or accessing restricted content or proprietary information/servers.
  • Sabotaging someone’s website or hijacking their social media pages for ransom.
  • Hacking someone’s device cameras or microphones to spy on them.

The list goes on, but most of it is common sense.  Theft, defamation of character, ransom, spreading viruses, or otherwise causing damage to someone’s property or reputation is all illegal.

Should I use a VPN?

While we can’t offer legal advice, you need to weigh the consequences and consider the local laws surrounding VPN use.  Are you in a country that allows them? Are you using them for ethical and legal purposes like keeping your billing information secure?  Then your risk is low.  If you’re in a country that bans them, and you plan to break the law by downloading 100 movies for free, then you can find yourself in more trouble than you bargained for.

Learn More About VPNs

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