VPNs are one of the world’s most useful digital tools, allowing everyday users to easily access blocked online content in their country while remaining hidden from ISPs and governments’ spotlights at the same time. These blocks are created for a number of reasons, ranging between everything from huge corporations trying to control legal access to their licenses to governments trying to dictate the information that their citizens can know. Some countries even heavily monitor internet usage for surveillance reasons, limiting users’ right to privacy as a result. It’s understandable, then, that VPN companies would become their enemies.
Two of the countries most known to heavily limit access to the internet are China and Russia – countries with hundreds of millions of internet users each – for whom certain information online might make it harder for them to control their citizens. Consequently, the two countries actively fight VPNs, not only to dictate what should be accessible or not but many times to promote their own national solutions too, cutting the chance of users opting for alternatives. Actually, according to the Freedom on the Net Report, China is the most repressed online country followed by Iran and Syria.
Firewalls and Surveillance
To dictate what their citizens can or can’t access, China uses the infamous Great Firewall to ban sites and services it deems a threat to the country, while Russia adds domains and apps to a government-controlled blacklist, therefore making room for their own tools. This means that over a billion people are accessing censored and filtered content, and their private conversations are not so private after all. And as a result, freedom of expression becomes nothing more than a mirage.
However, for quite some time some of the world’s biggest VPN companies have continued to work inside both territories, mainly because the popularity of this kind of service wasn’t as large as it is today and therefore still allowed Russian and Chinese citizens some online freedom. But this may well be over soon, as both countries are tightening the control on VPN activities. Russian president Vladimir Putin, for instance, signed a new legislation at the end of July – promoted as a counter-terrorist measure – which states that accessing proxy servers and VPNs is illegal. These new measures come after years of blocks on several websites promoting opposition or independent perspectives and will take effect on the first day of November 2017, just some months before the President runs for re-election in the Kremlin.
China, on the other hand, has been constantly approving new measures to limit online freedom for their citizens, and just like Turkey it has also ordered a block on VPNs in the past, with heavy penalties for those who do not comply with the law. Likewise, the government wants all VPN services out of the country by February 2018, which has already led Apple into removing a great number of VPN apps from its online store. However, not all of them are gone and this may be an indication that the country wants to regulate the market instead of killing it for good, which could be another step towards complete cyberspace regulation that China is so keen on achieving.
The Beginning of the End?
The truth is that Russia and China are two powerful nations and their decisions to kick VPNs out of their countries for good may have repercussions throughout the world. While it seems unlikely that a country like the United States could adopt a similar measure, we all know how the government likes to keep track of its citizens and particularly of what they do online; this is one of the main reasons that people buy VPN memberships, after all. So having circumvention and privacy enhancing tools banned – or at least operating in a regulated and government-controlled market – may well not be the most preposterous idea.
In addition, the measures approved by these two gigantic global powers could serve as an example for other, equally restrictive countries to follow, which could ultimately result in the death of the VPN industry. In that measure, it’s impossible not to think of the USA as one of the last fingers keeping VPN companies from falling off the cliff after already losing two of the most important markets. If the U.S. opted for banning VPNs at a time when people are more concerned with online privacy than ever, these companies’ major source of income would come from territories that cannot compete with any of these three.
So, the ultimate question is how long would VPN firms last without them? And, most importantly for us users, what would happen to our online privacy?
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