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VPNs the boom and the ban

16 April 2019

VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) are an important part of the modern internet and it looks as if they are going to become even more essential in the coming months and years.

However, some countries (such as China) have already imposed bans on VPNs and I fully expect to see similar moves spread around the world.

The (alleged) main use of a VPN is to protect traffic in-transit between your computer or phone, and the server with which you are communicating. By adding a layer of robust encryption, any attempts to monitor that traffic, or play man-in-the-middle, are effectively thwarted.

VPNs also have the side-effect of enhancing privacy, not only making it impossible for third parties to see what you are looking at but also exactly where that data is located.

Therein lies the power of the VPN and, from the perspective of those in control of things, the risk.

We have seen that governments around the world, including our own, are moving to exert ever-greater control over the internet, the information that's on it, and who can access that information.

It was just last month that the NZ government declared the Christchurch gunman's manifesto and streamed video to be "offensive" publications. In the case of the video I have some sympathy to that ban but in the case of the manifesto, this smells of book-burning to me and is totally unacceptable to anyone who values freedom of speech.

Even before these bans however, several local ISPs opted to ban a handful of websites which were known to be hosting or providing links to this same material. More censorship.

Of course anyone with a VPN would have no problems circumventing the primitive road-blocks put up by ISPs and likewise, anyone using a VPN to access that "offensive" material could do so without fear of being detected.

Therein lies the problem.

Yes, a VPN is pretty much a very good idea if you're going to be using your smartphone for things like online purchases or internet banking via public wifi hotpoints but it is also a huge hole in the attempts made by authorities to surveil and control our online activities.

For this reason, I suspect that pretty soon, NZ, Australia, the UK and other countries will move to clamp down on VPN use by "mere mortals". "Nobody shall have the power to challenge the control of authority!"

Of course we'll be told that there are sound and just reasons why we can't use a VPN without special license or without in-built back-doors to allow surveillance by authorities. No doubt VPNs will be painted as the tool of terrorists, child pornographers and other low-lifes who prey on our society and represent a threat to public safety. Then (of course) the public opinion of "the great unwashed" will fall into line and people will gladly submit to whatever restrictions, diktats and demands are made of them in respect to the use of such evil services.

I also expect the EU to get very tough on VPN use in the next few years -- mainly as a result of the Article 13 and Article 17 provisions that have just been passed into law over there.

Because very few online services will want to risk the huge fines and penalties for being caught with copyrighted material on their servers by EU authorities, many sites outside the EU will take the simple option of geo-fencing access to those servers. Net users from inside the EU will simply be denied access, thus eliminating the problem. Savvy EU Net users however, will circumvent this geo-fencing by the use of VPNs and that will be seen as people "thumbing their noses" at the authority of the EU -- thus almost ensuring a ban on VPN use in member states.

Sadly, based on recent observations, I fear that the internet has gone from a fantastic communications network which has empowered, informed, educated and brought the world's peoples closer together -- into a network that is now increasingly seen by authorities as a challenge to their control and ability to exercise power over people.

Just as one of the first moves made by nasty despots when they grab power is to ban guns, it would appear that governments around the world are viewing an unfettered internet as a real threat and something that must be withdrawn from the hands of the public.

Let them eat Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other entities that can be controlled by legislation -- but do not allow them unrestricted access beyond those simple pleasures.

(Takes off conspiracy hat with big "devil's advocate" sign on it).

What do readers think? Too dystopian? Over-the-top but worryingly accurate?

How would you describe my predictions and summation of the situation in today's column?

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