Internet Safety Tools Like VPN are Under Threat

While we, in general, live in an increasingly safer, richer world, it often feels like development in regards to civil rights and democracy is taking one step forward and two steps backward.

What I’m referring to in particular is Internet freedom and online security. Over the past 25 years the development of the World Wide Web has provided unfathomable changes in how we live our lives and communicate. With “information at your fingertips”, and the power of being able to communicate with the world from a smartphone, there are some less fortunate developments that governments and corporations have embraced.

Hong Kong

Photo: Bobby Yip / Reuters

The opportunity for governments and corporations to monitor and dictate what information should be accessed is a wet dream come true for any leader with megalomania. They dream of a dashboard from which they can track, analyze, and penalize everything that goes on under their domain.

The Internet censorship filters can be categorized as political filtering, social filtering, Internet tools filtering, and conflict/security filtering.

The OpenNet Initiative is a collaboration between three groups – the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and The SecDev Group in Ottawa – that investigates Internet filtering around the world. They define Internet censorship as:

  • Political – content opposing the current government or its policies; can also relate to human rights, freedom of expression, minority rights or religious movements
  • Social – content that might be perceived as offensive by the general population such as sexuality, gambling, illegal drugs, etc
  • Conflict/security – Content related to armed conflicts, border disputes, militant groups, and separatist movements
  • Internet tools – Tools enabling users to communicate with others, circumvent filtering or that otherwise provide a service. Each country is then classified in terms of consistency – how consistently these topics are filtered across Internet service providers – and transparency – how visible the process is where sites are blocked and whether users are able to view what’s on the blacklist

Link: Internet censorship listed: how does each country compare?

You would think this kind of eagerness to control its people was reserved to oppressive regimes, dictatorships, or controversial governments such as North Korea, China, Saudi Arabia, or Russia. In these countries Internet use is heavily scrutinized, censored – and offenders are penalized.

China is the most infamous online censorship regime. The government blocks and removes countless sites, restricts access to foreign content and keeps taps on any politically sensitive discussions like the actions of the government or controversial historical events like Tienanmen Square.

In North Korea, for example, only around four percent of people actually have access to the Internet and the limited number of websites are under government control.

In Myanmar (Burma), the government censors websites that highlight human rights violations or those that criticize the government. Authorities also filter emails to control how people communicate.

In Saudi Arabia, hundreds of thousands of websites have been blocked or censored for covering everything from political matters to criticizing Islam or the monarchy. Meanwhile in Iran bloggers are required to register with the Ministry of Art and Culture.

The list goes on and on.

In other words, what you do online can be used against you.

Each country has its own law in regards to what is legal to do online. What is legal in one country may not be legal in another. Similarly, as governments come and go, each government has its own agenda. If you disagree with the government you may be in trouble.

Even countries otherwise recognized as “free” are implementing domestic filters. In Denmark for instance, a court ordered the blocking of The Pirate Bay and AllofMP3, stemming from a civil lawsuit on the grounds of copyright infringement in 2008. Today, Denmark is just one of 30 countries who are blocking access to The Pirate Bay.

Just a few months ago following a complaint from Rights Alliance, a Danish court has ordered ISPs to block 12 pirate sites including KickassTorrents, RARBG and Popcorn Time. With these blockades rights holders hope to steer people towards legal content.

Subsequently, in August, Danish police jailed two men for operating two sites that explained how to use Popcorn Time as well as security tools like VPNs to hop over geo-blocks.

Following a court order dated June, local police report that yesterday morning they arrested two men in their thirties said to be the operators of a pair of Popcorn Time related websites. Popcorntime.dk and Popcorn-time.dk have now been shut down, with their domains placed under the control of the state prosecutor.

“The Danish State Prosecutor for Serious Economic and International Crime is presently conducting a criminal investigation that involves this domain name,” reads the seizure notice.

“As part of the investigation the state prosecutor has requested a Danish District Court to transfer the rights of the domain name to the state prosecutor. The District Court has complied with the request.”

The controversial part of the arrests is that the websites in question were simply pointing to information about how to use technology like Popcorn Time or VPNs to access copyright-restricted or illegally-accessed content. They now face up to six years in jail.

It’s controversial because they were simply pointing to information already widely available online and is fundamentally a case of disproportionate punishment.

It corresponds to writing a book on how to rob a bank, and getting penalized for that; not for actually robbing a bank.

Over the years we’ve seen an increased crackdowns on VPN services in several countries. The one and only reason is because its leaders want control over Internet access and they want to be able to monitor what people do online. The crackdown on VPNs is proof that it works.

Using a Virtual Private Network is not a 100 percent safeguard and it will not legitimize what you do online. However it will give you some degree of anonymity online and you will be able to avoid Internet filtering. With a little luck you’ll be able to stay “below the radar”. On a very basic level it will make it much harder for governments, ISPs, hackers and what not, to snoop on your Internet activity.

At the end of the day, what we fight for at VPN Creative is democracy, civil rights, freedom of speech, online anonymity and Internet freedom.