The blocking of VPNs in India and China spells trouble for our internet freedom

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As of June 11, 2018, net neutrality rules in the USA expired, with new regulations taking effect that gave Internet Service Providers (ISPs) broad new powers over how consumers could access the Internet. In essence, net neutrality was the law that prevented ISPs, for example large cable and telephone companies, from blocking, throttling the loading speed of or discriminating against any form of legal content on the Internet.

As with any argument there are two sides to the story. Those in favour of net neutrality believe in the principle that the Internet should be equally available to everyone. ISPs should not be allowed to block, slow down, or charge extra for access to certain websites or services. Those who are against net neutrality believe that eliminating net neutrality will free up more financial resources for ISPs to invest in improving Internet access in poorly served areas, for example. 

Blocking access to VPNs

Net neutrality took a blow recently as Reliance Jio, the third largest mobile carrier in India, was reported to be blocking access to several proxy and VPN sites that allow users to anonymously browse the web and sidestep internet service providers’ content restrictions online. Jio, which claims to have 250 million subscribers and offers some of the cheapest data plans in the world, is clearly in violation of net neutrality principles that state that ISPs should treat all online traffic equally. The Indian government approved these principles only last August. Such drastic action by the Indian government is a clear violation against net neutrality, and kick in the teeth to all those who condemn any kind of censorship. 

In China, Virtual private networks (VPN) are banned, other than those officially approved (and therefore heavily monitored) by the government. However, China sits in the top 10 of markets that use them. Unsurprisingly, the Chinese government is clamping down harder on VPN use by introducing fines - any individual caught using an unauthorised VPN service will now be fined $145. China introduced a public security law back in 1997 making it illegal to access the "foreign internet" without first seeking permission from the government. Since then, VPN services have appeared and allowed much easier access to sites and online services outside of China's reach.

Why censorship doesn’t work

By our standards we do not support censorship to govern the Internet, as it is not effective and comes with a substantial cut in freedom and personal rights. In Iran in 2009 the government shut down the Internet in the country to eliminate the use of Twitter as a communication media. Also, in Egypt in 2011, the government shut down the Internet to eliminate Facebook, because Facebook was being used to announce the time and place of anti-government rallies. These actions to shut down the Internet are obvious assaults on free speech. Blocking VPNs is a barrier to the use of the Internet as a conduit of free speech by governments (or powerful corporations)

Any violation against net neutrality can lead to a centralized Internet that is controlled by a few powerful entities - we condemn this wholeheartedly. The main beneficiary of a centralized Internet are government authorities that can therefore spy on the common people - policymakers will insisted on creating and promoting this model so that they can better control the Internet and its users - Big Brother is watching you!

Countries with a more restrictive reputation around civil rights and freedom of speech tend to be the ones that ban or restrict VPN use. Citizens may try to use VPNs to get around strict government monitoring of online activities, or blocking of certain sites or services, for instance. The governments, in turn, attempt to block or restrict their use. VPNs are currently illegal to use in Iraq, Belarus and North Korea, and usage is heavily restricted in a number of other territories, including China, Russia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. Governments that impose fines against VPN usage are ultimately trying to intimidate their citizens and is a likely abuse of their power. 

Potential for abuse

Any censorship mechanism is likely to be abused at one point. Hence ISPs should never be responsible of controlling which websites should be blocked. Households have in the past been asked whether they wish to install a broadband filters - to screen out pornography, suicide and self-harm related content, weapons and violence, gambling, drugs, alcohol and tobacco. Whilst most of us would agree that these things need to be blocked, who then decides on the more ‘grey area’ subjects. Should ISPs therefore have absolute control on which websites are blocked? Who is watching the watchers?

Internet freedom is showing severe signs of decline across the globe. It’s about time we all make a stand together.  

Sebastian Schaub, Founder of Hide.me  

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