Freedom on the Net 2017, Freedom House’s annual report that ranks Internet freedoms around the world, was released last week. The report revealed the alarming fact that Internet freedoms continued to decline for the seventh year in a row. This year’s report also included a new section dedicated to changes in VPN use around the world. As the report notes, there was a rise in both the number of people using VPNs, as well as an increase in the number of countries restricting VPN use. Both of these come as a direct result of increased censorship, and fuel a vicious cycle: as censorship spreads, more people seek tools to bypass restrictions (for example, VPNs), then as VPN use becomes more widespread governments react by limiting VPN use, thus increasing censorship further.
In 2017, 14 countries had regulations on VPNs, with six new regulations or pieces of legislation passed in the last year. The six countries who introduced new regulations include Belarus, China, Egypt, Russia, Turkey and the UAE. The legislation commonly includes laws to ban censorship circumvention, blocking of websites or blocking of network traffic associated with VPNs. Generally, legislation was enacted in the wake of periods of intense censorship – which drive the numbers of people using VPNs up – and then result in more strict regulation. VPN bans are immensely damaging in terms of Internet freedom, as people in repressive nations rely on the tool to access news, websites, business tools (for example, the G-Suite in China) and an open and unrestricted Internet experience overall.
Why VPNs Are Important to Internet Freedom
VPNs are a key tool in fighting Internet censorship. A VPN functions by changing a user’s IP address, so their true location is not revealed. This enables the user to bypass local or geo restrictions in place, as these are routinely enforced by identifying location via IP address. When using a VPN, Internet users in restricted countries can access the same unrestricted Internet experience as others access around the world.
Blocking VPNs obviously disallows this practice, but is also concerning as it stops Internet users from receiving other important benefits VPNs provide. One such benefit is securing connections to increase online privacy and security, which is essential in today’s world.
Restrictions on VPNs can be hard to enforce, so many countries approach their regulation with what Freedom House refers to as a “two tier system.” This system works by breaking VPNs into two categories – authorized VPNs, which are generally domestic providers that comply with law enforcement, and providers that are outright banned (generally foreign providers). The most secure (which are also most often the best) VPN providers are often targets. For example, in China licensed providers are allowed, while other (foreign) and unlicensed providers are not. Apple recently pulled VPN apps from their app store in China to comply with this regulation. Another example is Iran, where authorities create their own VPNs to allow users to access banned content – but then monitor what users of these VPNs do online.
What’s Next for VPNs & Censorship?
The inclusion of VPNs in the report is significant, as this was the first year a section of the report was dedicated solely to the tools. Seeing an increase in VPN use is a positive, as more people are taking control over their Internet experience and bypassing restrictions. But it also raises alarm bells; increased VPN use in restrictive countries indicates that more people need VPNs to access an unrestricted Internet, indicating censorship is on the rise. The report’s findings – and callout of VPNs specifically – only reinforces how important it is that we continue our fight for a free and open Internet for users around the world.