We’re living in an age of dissonance, where we are at once the most free we’ve ever been and yet also the most restricted. We have the world wide web, a vast resource of ideas, information and interesting content; but we also have governments and ISPs that spy on us, digital borders blocking us from content and hackers trying to steal our private data. That’s why VPNs have grown into such a booming industry, greatly empowered by the level of internet restrictions that have started to grow over the last few years.
These restrictions are imposed as much on a local level – at school or in a business – as they are nationally by ISPs or even the government. And because VPNs overcome such blocks, nowadays it is common to see them become a target of these establishments. This means that in some of the most restrictive countries it is already tough to find one of these programs, let alone be able to use it.
How VPN Blocks Work
Just like with websites and services, different entities apply their VPN blocks on different scales. For instance, schools or business offices are limited to imposing such restrictions on their Wi-Fi network, which are the easiest to work around. In turn, ISP blocks are harder to overcome, but it’s still possible as they usually focus on the largest VPN providers. The hardest to overcome are those applied by countries, since national scale blocks enforced by government-controlled blacklists requires, by law, that all ISPs respect and impose these regulations. Typically, such laws also forbid VPN companies from conducting their business within the borders, forcing them to disable the servers and cease operation.
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Websites and Streaming Services Blocking VPNs
Many popular websites are also fighting with VPNs and other circumvention methods that allow foreigners to access the content of another country. Netflix is the prime example of this since it was common for many people to use VPNs to access the online library of the U.S. – which has a much larger and varied selection than other countries. The reason why Netflix blocks VPN traffic is because of the different legal licenses that it has to manage, and the licenses for the U.S. are not the same as for European countries, for instance. As such, a European user living in a country where Netflix doesn’t have licenses for U.S. content shouldn’t be able to subscribe to and access the American version of the site.
Countries Blocking VPNs
China and Russia are two of the most powerful nations, but VPNs are one of their greatest enemies. In fact, China is the most restrictive country in the world when it comes to internet, since pretty much every foreign website and service is blocked by its so-called Great Firewall. This is also a similar reality in Russia and the two have the same political motivations: to promote their own national products, in this case websites and apps. While Russia’s approach is not as aggressive as China, blocked content – including VPNs – are part of a blacklist controlled by the government.
ISPs Blocking VPNs
ISPs are keen on blocking torrents and other streaming websites that provide pirated content such as music, movies or TV series, mostly because… well, it’s illegal. And because VPN services provide not only the ability to access them but also protection from being monitored while doing so, ISPs aim to block VPNs. There are many cases throughout the world – including in the U.S. – of ISPs blocking known VPN IP addresses and traffic of larger companies, or even disabling access to their sites just as they do for torrenting sites.
Schools, Companies Blocking VPNs
Institutions such as schools, universities or companies of different sizes often resort to special software to block social media websites and other services so that students and workers don’t feel tempted to access them and lose their focus. The companies may know about how VPNs can circumvent these blocks, and so a simple tweak of the main router configuration will allow them to blacklist any VPN providers’ websites or, in more extreme circumstances, even completely disable the Wi-Fi network as happened in Toronto in early 2017.
Circumventing VPN Blocks
The level at which the VPN restriction is applied is what dictates the difficulty of getting around the block. As mentioned, the ones that are limited to a single Wi-Fi network – such as schools and offices – are the easiest since all it takes is to connect to a different network. Downloading a VPN using a home network or any other than the one with imposed blocks should ensure that the app can be installed and then used afterwards, even when reconnecting to the school or employer’s network.
VPN blocks applied by ISPs are a bit harder to circumvent. Usually, they are imposed on different connection ports but, fortunately, many VPNs feature port forwarding and other similar methods that allow the user to change ports and then be able to access the internet through another route.
However, ISPs can block entire VPN sites, too, and therefore access is even more strict. While in some countries changing ISPs might work, the best option is to turn to less popular, less well-known VPN providers, as these usually fly under the radar of the ISPs and are not blocked at all.
But if VPNs are blocked by countries then everything becomes much more complicated and the user’s may not be able to get around the situation; sometimes VPN companies need to give the necessary push first.
To explain, let’s take the example of China once again here since this is the easiest to understand: instead of deactivating their servers or ceasing operations in the country, some VPN companies provide alternative measures. GoldenFrog, for instance, has seen its VyprVPN being hunted and has resorted to using mirror sites like goldenfrog.biz to keep the service running. Other providers, like HideMyAss, deliver Chinese virtual servers that attribute IP addresses from that country just like a regular VPN server, but in practice there’s actually nothing physically there.
Legality of Blocking VPNs
Each country has its own laws and is free to change them whenever they want. When such changes happen, everyone within the country borders is required to respect these new regulations, and therefore companies need to adapt their business if necessary.
Many governments have changed their laws to make VPN and other circumvention tools like proxy websites illegal, and those who don’t act in accordance to this by ceasing their services are naturally likely to be blocked. In more lax countries like the U.S., accessing and using a VPN is entirely legal – just like surfing the internet using another IP address.
However, there are still legal ramifications surrounding how a VPN is used. Torrenting is illegal in a large number of countries, and hiding behind a VPN connection won’t make this legal, much like accessing child pornography websites, spreading viruses, performing fraudulent activities and such. Usually, VPN providers state in their terms of service which actions are strictly forbidden, so it is crucial to consult this to find out. For instance, if they have any specific servers reserved for P2P, they are usually located in countries where torrenting is legal.
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