Are VPNs Legal?
Updated: March 25, 2016
Yes. VPNs are legal in 99% of countries around the world, but online activities through a VPN are subject to local laws, so check these carefully if you are in doubt.
Since the revelations made by Edward Snowden of the scale of US government snooping into the online activities of its citizens, interest in VPNs, which offers users totally privacy and anonymity whilst online has peaked. But many people exploring the prospect of getting a VPN are concerned about whether or not the service is legal or not. In this article we hope to clarify and explain the legal position VPN users find themselves in.
So are VPNs legal or not?
The simple answer to this question is, at least for people in most countries, using a VPN service is completely legal. A VPN service reroutes your internet traffic via another server and changes your IP Address in the process. For a comprehensive overview of VPNs check out our Ultimate Guide to VPNs here.
Most users will have signed up to take advantage of the extra privacy and security that a VPN offers and nothing about this is illegal in most countries. Indeed, many large companies and academic institutions will routinely provide a VPN services for their employers and students to help protect confidents files.
Where are VPNs illegal?
Unsurprisingly, the countries where the state are keen to control the online activities of the citizens are the ones where using a VPN is illegal. There are specific bans or restrictions of the use of VPNs in countries such as China, Iran, and North Korea, to name but three.
However, this does not mean that VPN services are unavailable in these countries, and indeed in China, the use of VPNs is widespread, especially amongst expat communities. Despite the billions of dollars, the Chinese Government spends each year on their Great Firewall Project, they seem to turn a blind eye to this type of use for the most part, although users will complain that their service is blocked during a major political event, or on dates with a sensitive historical relevance.
So if you are in one of these countries, you are using a VPN at your own risk. But if you are located anywhere else, using a VPN is totally legal.
What about using a VPN to access Netflix or another streaming service?
Many readers will be aware of the current clampdown being implemented by Netflix against VPN users.
But to watch Netflix, or any other streaming service in the country where you are located, through a VPN, is completely legal too. As long as you have paid for the service and are within the terms and conditions of the provider, you are not breaking any laws or copyright agreements.
Indeed, Netflix itself has advised users in the past to use a VPN to access their service in order to boost their privacy and security, although their current attempts to block VPN users are making this harder to do for many.
Is using a VPN to access geo-blocked content or streaming services in other countries illegal?
The reason for the Netflix clampdown is to try and stop users from one country accessing the Netflix service of another country. Netflix and other streaming services hold the rights to different shows in different countries and are not permitted to broadcast shows outside the regions they hold the rights to.
However, the question of whether using a VPN to circumvent geo-blocking to access such sites is illegal is a rather grey area.
In Australia, official guidelines suggest that it is not illegal to use a VPN to access overseas content. In most countries you are certainly not going to be perceived as breaking the criminal law, so another short answer to this question would have to be, No.
But it is possible that you might be seen to be breaking a civil agreement, namely your contract with Netflix. This is not something you are likely to be arrested for or anything like that, but Netflix do have the right to block your service if they can, or indeed cancel your account if they choose to do so.
What about downloading torrents?
VPN are popular amongst users who like to download music, movies, and other media using BitTorrent services. In most countries such sites are illegal as they are seen to be in breach of copyright laws. If this is the case where you are, then whether or not you use a VPN you are still going to be in breach of the law.
In recent years’ record companies and film studios have been fairly proactive in chasing down some BitTorrent users to make an example of them in an effort to dissuade other from doing the same thing. This means that a fine or even a prison sentence is possible for BitTorrent users.
However, using a VPN masks your identity online which will make it much harder for them, or law enforcement agencies to identify BitTorrent users. This of course does not change the legal status of what they are doing, and most VPNs will caution as much in their small print.
So is everything I do on a VPN legal?
Using a VPN does not of course give you free reign to do whatever you choose and there are of course some uses of a VPN which are illegal, as they are in other areas of life.
These include things like hacking websites or computer systems, buying and selling drugs and weapons, accessing child pornography, committing fraud, and spreading viruses or other malicious software.
VPNs will make it clear to users that such activity is not permitted, and some will cancel the accounts of people who use their service for illegal ends. Some VPNs do keep logs of user activity and will hand these over to law enforcement agencies if requested to do so. Even if your chosen VPN has a ‘no-logs’ policy, they will have to give some information when presented with a warrant or other types of official legal requests.
In short, using a VPN is not illegal in most countries around the world, but users online activities through their VPN are subject to local laws, so check these carefully if you are in doubt.