A VPN or a Virtual Private Network is a secure channel for exchange of data between two systems over a network. It is a tool to encrypt and secure your communications. This makes VPNs a powerful privacy utility that we all should consider using. If however, you are unaware of VPN, you can read what is a VPN for a more in-depth explanation. The gist here, is that just like the Internet, VPN is also an utility over a network. The added advantage is that VPNs can make you difficult to identify and can potentially hide you from Governments and sometimes, from hackers. So a question arises here: Is using a VPN Legal? Just as using the internet itself is not illegal, using VPNs is also not illegal either. Nonetheless, if what you are doing while using a VPN breaks the law of the land, then you are obviously liable to be prosecuted with criminal charges.
That would be the simple thing to say in under fifty words, but the reality is that we now live in a post-Snowden world. More and more Internet users are now concerned about their online privacy and anonymity. As a result of this growing concern, VPNs have grown from being a tool used only by geeks to a mainstream service used by general people. Clearly, this clashes with the working of global intelligence agencies and leaves their insatiable appetite for surveillance unfulfilled, thereby upsetting them a little.
Is Using VPN Legal in the USA?
VPNs are completely legal in the United States, and since the US Constitution has pretty strong protections for freedom of speech, it's unlikely that VPNs are ever going to be outlawed. The USA doesn't have mandatory data retention laws either. Thus, VPN service providers based out of the United States can choose not to retain any logs, so that they cannot be forced by law enforcement agencies to hand over the browsing history of customers.
However, an amendment to Rule 41 was recently passed in the US, which allows a judge to issue a a warrant for remotely access, search, seize, or copy of data when “the district where the media or information is located has been concealed through technological means”.
Is Using VPN Legal in the UK?
VPN services are completely legal in the UK. However, Britain’s Investigatory Powers Act - informally called as snooper’s charter - forces all web and phone companies to store everyone's internet history for a year. Around 50 UK agencies have been granted the access to view these records without any judicial oversight.
Even for journalists, the law enforcement agencies can access their browsing and communication records with a merely a sign-off from a judge. This makes the use of VPN services a no-brainer if you are accessing the internet from the UK or using services based out of UK. However, you should steer clear of VPN companies and servers based out of the United Kingdom.
Is Using VPN Legal in the EU?
Once again, VPN services are legal in the EU. However, several countries have mandatory data retention laws. Ireland was one of the earliest countries to mandate data retention. The Irish law that enforced a shockingly high retention period of seven years became the blueprint of European Union's Data Retention Directive in 2006.
This directive was deemed unconstitutional and was thrown out in 2014 by the ECJ (European Court of Justice). Following this, many countries like The Netherlands and Belgium also invalidated their data retention laws. However, there are several countries like Italy, Estonia, Finland, Greece, France, Spain, Lithuania, Latvia, Malta, and Portugal that have data retention laws.
Is Using VPN Legal in Russia?
VPN is still legal in Russia; however, there have been calls from politicians to ban anonymization tools. Russia also has mandatory log retention laws that forces companies to retain traffic logs for a year.
In July 2016, PIA (Private Internet Access), a popular 0-log VPN service provider, was raided by Russian Authorities. This prompted the VPN service provider to pull out of Russia.
Is Using VPN Legal in Australia?
Using VPN is legal in Australia, and there are even proposals to amend the law to guarantee the right to use VPNs, including using VPNs for bypass geo-targeting and geo-blocking.
However, Australia mandates its telephone companies and internet service providers to collect and store metadata for two years.
Is Using VPN Legal in Saudi Arabia?
Saudi Arabia has strict censorship laws that forbid criticism, pornography, and homosexuality among other things. It also restricts access to many online websites and services and is consistently ranked as one of the worst countries for press freedom.
Saudi Arabia doesn't yet have any law banning the use of VPN; however, caution is recommended if you plan to use VPN to access banned services or break any of the other laws.
Is Using VPN Legal in UAE (Dubai)?
Answer: Caution Advised
UAE recently passed a law which states:
A fine of 2,000,000 AED or prison to those who use techniques to get a false IP address with the intention of committing a crime.
The law is ambiguously worded and puts the onus of proving innocence on the user. However, in response to inquiries from companies and institutions the Government issued a clarification that using a VPN for economic and commercial purposes that don't break UAE laws is legal.
Is Using VPN Legal in Qatar?
Although Qatar also has restrictive cybercrime laws and a censored internet, it has a tad more permissive government than other Middle Eastern countries.
So far, Qatar hasn't made any attempts to outlaw VPNs or prosecute users of VPNs.
Is Using VPN Legal in Iran?
VPNs and Tor clients are banned in Iran and their usage is punishable by law with imprisonment upto one year. Regardless, VPNs are extremely widespread in Iran too, and there aren't any reports of the government cracking down on users of these services.
Using VPN services in Iran is a risky proposition, and caution is advised.
Is Using VPN Legal in China?
Answer: Restrictions Apply
China's is notorious for its censorship, and 'The Great Firewall of China' made news across the world when it was launched. Thankfully, VPN usage is absolutely legal in China and is used by over three percent of Chinese internet users.
The Chinese government frowns upon the practice of using VPNs to bypass censorship and cracks down on VPN service providers periodically. However, the government is not known to target individual users of the VPNs.
Is Using VPN Legal in India?
In the recent past, the Indian government, aided by the courts around the country, has been steadily increasing the list of banned websites. However, India doesn't have any law forbidding the usage of VPNs.
Also, India doesn't have any mandatory data retention laws, but a law similar to many of the countries listed above might be in the works.
As discussed above VPN is legal in most countries around the world. Some of the notable exceptions are authoritative regimes like that of North Korea which not only doesn't allow VPN, but also restricts access to the Internet as a whole.
Using VPN to bypass government-maintained blacklisted websites is almost always illegal and caution is advised.
Besides security, one of the most prominent uses of VPN is geo-unblocking. Several content providers impose geographic restrictions on their media due to complexities and costs involved in licensing music, movies and television shows. Using VPN to bypass such restrictions typically fall into a gray zone. While most countries don't have laws barring the use of VPNs to circumvent geo-blocking, users trying this might be in violation of the TOS (Terms of Service) of the content provider, and hence can be produced in court.
However, none of the major media services (including YouTube, Hulu, Spotify, and Netflix) have shown any inclination to target individual users. Besides the possibility of triggering a public backlash, it is an expensive affair to identify users located in different legal jurisdictions and prosecute them.
Let us know in the comments section if you've queries about any country not featured in the above list.