Are VPN legal

Privacy and Punishment: Are VPNs Legal?

When you want to go covert online, channeling all your web activity through a virtual private network, or VPN, is one of the smartest moves you can make – but is it legal? The short answer is yes; however, as with any rule, there are caveats that you’d be wise to take into consideration.

In recent years, it seems that most countries’ internet laws have drifted towards one of two extremes. Either they’ve become more privacy-oriented, allowing citizens to take full advantage of the web without interference from governments or corporations, or they’ve gotten far more restrictive, censoring vast swathes of the internet and mandating records of all online activity.

VPNs, for the most part, aren’t explicitly referenced in any of these laws, making them legal by default in much of the world, including the Americas, Oceania and most of Europe, Asia and Africa.

But just because something is legal doesn’t mean that it’s safe, and some countries have a history of using legal loopholes to prosecute citizens for seemingly permissible online activity, particularly when said activity goes against the philosophies and practices of the government.

In this article, we’ll take a trip around the world to nations that fall within three categories: countries where VPNs are illegal or highly restricted, countries that offer a safe haven for VPNs (and internet freedom in general) and countries where, though VPNs are legal, other privacy laws could pose a threat to VPN users.

First, though, here’s a quick refresher on how VPNs work and their most common applications.

Back to Basics: A VPN Overview

How a VPN Works

VPN works

Usually, when you attempt to access a website, the transaction goes like this: your computer sends a request through your network to your ISP, which passes the message on to the server that hosts your requested website. That server then sends the requested data back to your ISP, which transfers it to your computer via your network.

The data makes it back to you because your request is attached to your IP address, which uniquely identifies your network and contains information about your ISP and your location. This means that your activity can be traced back to you by your ISP, the sites you visit and anyone – government, hacker, advertiser or network administrator – who happens to be listening in.

A VPN stops this spying in its tracks using two methods: encryption and location masking.

When you use a VPN, your request is encrypted before it leaves your computer. This transforms it so it’s unintelligible until it’s decrypted using a secret key available only to you and the VPN.

The VPN then directs your ISP to send the encrypted request to the VPN server rather than the destination. Your ISP never finds out what site you’re trying to visit; it serves only as a bridge between you and the VPN server.

Once your request is received by the VPN server, it’s decrypted and passed along to the destination server. The destination server perceives the request as originating from the VPN, not you – your IP address never leaves the VPN server.

From there, the process reverses, delivering the data back to you. On your end, it looks exactly as it would if you weren’t using a VPN, but behind the scenes, your identity and data are anonymized and secured against any prying eyes.

Common Uses for a VPN

Once the domain of government agents, corporate figureheads and secretive hackers, VPNs are now easily accessible by – and highly useful for – even the most casual internet users. Here are just a few of the many reasons why people use VPNs.

Preventing IP Tracking

Because your IP address uniquely identifies your network, websites and ad providers can use it to track which pages you’ve visited. They then use this data to build a secret profile of you, alter site content, increase prices and show you customized ads.

When you use a VPN, your real IP address is completely withheld from the internet at large, protecting you from these and other manipulative tactics. Additionally, you can change your IP address at will simply by choosing a new VPN server to connect to; in a matter of seconds, you can browse from the other side of the world!

Accessing Blocked Sites and Media

Governments, schools, ISPs and workplaces all engage in website blocking and censorship to varying degrees. Whether it’s a nationwide social media blackout or an office ban on online shopping, these restrictions can be bypassed with a VPN, which hides the true nature of your activity behind layers of rock-solid encryption.

Sometimes, restrictions occur the other way around, with websites like Netflix and Hulu blocking certain countries from streaming their content. Here, too, a VPN can save the day by making the website believe that you’re accessing it from an approved region.

Torrenting and Filesharing

Most ISPs don’t take too kindly to users who download or upload copyrighted material, whether that takes the form of torrenting or other peer-to-peer filesharing methods. If a company sees that your IP address has shared its copyrighted content, it’ll send a warning – or a hefty demand letter – to your ISP, which will be happy to forward it to you.

Digital pirates would be wise to conduct their activities behind a VPN. Neither ISP nor copyright holder will be able to tell who you are or what you’re doing, so you can torrent ‘til your heart’s content without fear of exorbitant fines and intimidating notices.

Protecting Yourself on Public WiFi

Public WiFi

Public WiFi hotspots are great for productivity, but not so great for privacy. Even if they’re password-protected, these networks are easy targets for hackers looking to intercept and steal your personal information and data – anything from a social media password to your credit card information is up for grabs.

When you use a VPN on public WiFi, there’s no chance for an attacker to get a hold of your data, as it’s encrypted from start to finish. Anything a hacker steals would simply be useless gibberish, and decoding it without the secret key could take thousands of years.

The VPN World Tour: VPN Laws Around the World

Now that we’ve brushed up on our techno-lingo, it’s time to set off on our journey to find out what VPN laws look like around the world.

Countries Where VPNs are Banned or Restricted

We’ll get the bad news out of the way first: these countries are explicit in their disdain for VPNs. If you live in or visit one of these countries, you may find that you’re unable to access VPNs; even if you can, you could face punishment if you’re caught doing so.

The good news is that if you don’t see your country on this list, it’s perfectly legal for you to use a VPN and you won’t face any consequence for doing so, provided you’re not using the VPN for any illegal activities.

China: VPNs Highly Restricted

China’s increasingly pervasive internet censorship has made headlines under the nickname “The Great Firewall of China” for good reason: these restrictions are some of the broadest in the world. Many of the websites that we consider mainstays of the modern internet, such as Facebook, Google and its many subdomains, are completely banned in China.

Also included in the ban are foreign news sources such as the New York Times and the BBC, charities like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, activist sites like Change.org and any site containing blacklisted phrases or keywords. These terms are often related to political dissidence, government wrongdoings and the organizing of groups or gatherings, political or otherwise.

Those who try to get around these censors with a VPN often find themselves stymied; by law, only VPNs that are run or approved by the Chinese government are legal to use. China has blocked many of the most popular VPN providers and forced companies like Apple to remove VPN-related apps from their Chinese app stores.

In China, government-approved VPN providers must keep user activity logs and provide them to authorities, defeating much of the purpose of a VPN. An individual who is caught using an unapproved VPN may be forced to remove the VPN from their device and issued a fine of around $150 USD – but harsher punishments could very well be issued and kept under wraps, particularly if the VPN was used for anti-government activism.

VPN providers based in China face much more severe consequences for operating without approval. In 2017, a Chinese citizen was sentenced to five and a half years in prison and fined around $74,000 USD for running an unapproved VPN service.

The state of internet freedom in China is getting ever more dire as time passes, causing some to worry that VPNs will soon be illegal to access altogether. For now, though, they continue to be present and accessible to varying degrees, and many citizens and visitors alike feel that using them is worth the risk.

Russia: VPN Use Restricted

Moscow, Russia

Russia’s warm welcome to American whistleblower Edward Snowden stands in sharp contrast to its overall attitude towards freedom of speech and information. Since 2012, the Roskomnadzor, which oversees the internet in Russia, has maintained a list of banned websites that includes over four million pages.

The list includes torrent trackers, the professional networking site LinkedIn and the video-sharing site Dailymotion. Many large websites, including Wikipedia and Reddit, have been blocked for hours or days at a time due to one of their pages containing banned content such as documentation of government crimes, opposition to the Russian government or information about drugs.

Even Google has been temporarily blocked for displaying search results pertaining to online gambling, which is illegal in Russia. Access to a blocked site is only restored once the site agrees to remove the prohibited content or, at the very least, prevent Russian visitors from seeing it.

When Russia’s new VPN restrictions were made public in 2017, it was widely reported that VPNs would be completely banned in the country. While this made for sensational headlines, it wasn’t true – however, the actual effect of the law isn’t that much better.

The new regulations require both VPN providers and search engines to block Russian users from viewing the sites on the country’s blacklist. Consequences for noncompliance fall on the offending company; these include fines and being added to the blacklist themselves.

This is especially concerning given Russia’s other anti-privacy laws. Companies are required to store all their Russian user data on servers located in Russia and turn over encryption keys and other data to authorities upon request.

So while you can’t be punished simply for using a VPN, you could be in trouble if you’re caught using one to view banned content. And because Russia has had difficulties implementing and enforcing its internet censorship laws, some privacy advocates worry that VPNs will be banned completely in order to simplify the ordeal.

Turkey: Many VPNs Blocked

Those in power rarely respond well to political opposition, but the government of Turkey has reacted to it in a very concerning manner. Following widespread protests and outrage over the politically-motivated imprisonment of activists, journalists and parliament members in 2016, Turkey blocked access to Tor and many of the most popular VPNs.

Even before the explicit online anonymity ban, Turkey was notorious for using internet censorship as a way to silence those who disagreed with the government. Social media and instant messaging blackouts occurred (and continue to occur) regularly, lasting for hours or days and often coinciding with scheduled protests or controversial government announcements.

In the wake of these blackouts, many Turkish citizens turned to VPNs to continue accessing news and communication tools. Though some VPNs are blocked, a good deal more are still accessible in Turkey – but whether or not they’re vulnerable is another matter entirely.

As of 2014, all Turkish ISPs are required to implement deep packet inspection or DPI. This allows authorities to access and analyze the content of encrypted or anonymized internet transmissions, potentially revealing user identities and browsing histories that were thought to be protected.

In March 2018, Turkey added more VPNs and internet privacy tools, including the encrypted email service ProtonMail, to its blacklist. The official announcement heavily implied that efforts were underway to implement an even broader VPN ban, though this has not occurred as of April 2019.

While using a VPN isn’t a crime in and of itself, using one to view censored content could be construed as terrorism under Turkey’s laws. Still, VPNs are by far the safest way to access the internet in Turkey, assuming the government doesn’t follow through on its threats to outlaw them entirely.

United Arab Emirates (UAE): VPN Use Restricted

Privacy and Punishment: Are VPNs Legal?

The countries we’ve looked at so far have restricted VPN use mainly for political reasons, but in the UAE, VPN laws appear to benefit telecom companies as well. These laws are complicated and often misinterpreted or taken out of context, leading to widespread confusion.

The UAE is perhaps the most prosperous country in the Middle East, owing to the many global corporations operating out of its two largest cities, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Most of these companies – and many individual citizens – rely on VPNs and VoIP, or internet calling, to communicate internationally.

In much of the world, internet calling is unregulated, a freedom which has led to the proliferation of services like Skype and FaceTime. In the UAE, however, the law dictates that VoIP services must be approved by the country’s two telecom companies, Etisalat and du; since these companies offer their own paid VoIP services, the free alternatives used in other countries are blocked in the UAE.

Lest this de facto ban be circumvented by using a VPN, the UAE has also implemented a law prohibiting the use of VPNs, proxies or other “fraudulent” IP addresses to commit or obscure criminal activity. The punishment for violating this law is severe – up to a lifetime in prison and fines of up to $550,000 USD.

At first glance, the law seems like a reasonable restriction, but the UAE’s definition of criminal activity is expansive. It’s a crime, for instance, to use Skype rather than a telecom-provided VoIP; it’s also a crime to gain unauthorized access to copyrighted content via torrenting or to subvert geoblocking on streaming sites.

Binge-watchers and video chatters aren’t the only ones at risk; activists have been arrested for being critical of the UAE government on Twitter and other sites. Should you use a VPN to deride the state online (or voice support for those who have been persecuted for doing so), you could be charged with unlawful VPN use on top of your anti-government speech charges.

So even though VPNs are technically legal in the UAE, their permitted uses are so heavily restricted – and the punishments for their misuse are so severe – that users should exercise extreme caution. The UAE is not a good place to be a criminal, and if you don’t know the law, you could be one without even knowing it.

North Korea: VPNs Illegal for Citizens

If you know anything about North Korea, it probably comes as no surprise that VPNs are illegal in this secretive authoritarian nation. What may be surprising is the fact that this ban only applies to North Korean citizens, not visitors.

Most residents of North Korea have no internet access, and even if they did, they’d find it to be heavily censored. Only high-ranking government members are allowed online; should they leave the country for diplomatic purposes, they are forbidden from accessing the uncensored internet while abroad.

In total, only a few thousand people in North Korea are able to get online – including you, if you decide to visit. Tourists are allowed to use the internet during their stay, though this usage is subject to the rest of North Korea’s extensive, mysterious laws: no defaming or denigrating the country or its leaders, no western propaganda and no foreign media.

Amazingly, visitors to North Korea report that they are allowed to use VPNs, potentially opening up a way to access the true world wide web in the most restrictive country on Earth. However, it would be incredibly unwise to do so; given the country’s history of sentencing foreigners to decades of hard labor for violating the law, viewing banned websites could put you in serious danger.

Iran: Unapproved VPNs Banned

Iran: unapproved VPNs banned

The government of Iran has not been shy about its distaste for the internet. It’s cited everything from “offensive” content on social media to “suspicious” email services run by western companies to networks of protesters and dissidents in its justification for internet censorship.

So devout is this belief that Iran has effectively blocked a quarter or more of the internet, occasionally going so far as to cut off all internet access nationwide for days or weeks at a time. Sites like Google, Facebook and YouTube are blacklisted and replaced with government-monitored alternatives, leaving many Iranians with no access to news or media from outside the country.

ISPs are required by law to store all of a customer’s transmitted data for at least three months after their service ends. They’re also required to run strict content filters and enforce the statewide website blacklist; failure to do so results in the shuttering of the ISP and further consequences for its leaders.

Iran hasn’t outright banned VPNs due to their legitimate uses for businesses. However, all VPNs must be approved by the government, a process that requires allowing authorities full access to any and all data sent or received through the VPN – defeating the purpose of these privacy-oriented tools.

Unapproved VPNs (that is, any VPN that isn’t open to government monitoring) are illegal; if you’re caught using one, you could face up to a year in prison. Realistically, though, you’re unlikely to be prosecuted unless you’re using a VPN to spread anti-government or anti-Islamic rhetoric.

Iraq: VPNs Illegal

The internet is what you make of it: those with good intentions can use it to improve the lives of millions, but those with bad intentions can use it to destroy the lives of millions. Nowhere was the latter more apparent than in Iraq, where the terrorist group ISIS used social media to recruit followers, spread threats and coordinate devastating attacks.

To combat this reign of terror, the Iraqi government instituted a massive internet ban in 2014. The ban encompassed all of the most popular social media sites and, in regions where ISIS strongholds were located, the entire internet.

Also included in the ban were all VPNs. Though no specific punishment for VPN use was stated in the order, it’s reasonable to assume that, given the reason for the ban, VPN use in Iraq could result in accusations of terrorism.

In the years following the ban, ISIS lost most of its power and presence in Iraq; however, the internet restrictions it prompted remain in full effect. Iraq has given no indication that it intends to lift the ban, and until it does, VPNs continue to be completely illegal within its borders.

Oman: VPNs Illegal for Individuals

Compared to some of the other countries on this list, Oman’s VPN laws are very plainly stated: use of VPNs in the home is completely prohibited. Businesses must possess a government-issued permit to use VPNs; permission may be denied arbitrarily and applicants are not told why they weren’t approved.

In Oman, ISPs are required to block many types of content, primarily anything that criticizes Islam or promotes drug use. Also included in the ban are all types of pornography and LGBT content.

Perhaps surprisingly, Oman doesn’t appear to block pages that express political opposition; however, the law implies that Omanis are expected to restrict their own speech on this topic. Reports from activists who have refused to engage in this self-censorship suggest that Oman responds to online dissent by hacking into and deleting content from pages and profiles that it deems offensive.

Additionally, Oman prohibits the use of VoIP services, though whether this is for the purpose of profit (as in the UAE) or surveillance is unclear.

Omanis who are caught using a VPN to circumvent these bans or for any other reason are subject to a fine of approximately $1,300 USD. Businesses that use a VPN without a permit may be fined around $2,600 USD.

There are no reports of anyone being prosecuted for using a VPN in Oman and it isn’t known what technologies the country uses to detect VPN traffic. But Oman’s legal system is far from transparent and simple fines may not make the news, so VPN users in Oman should take extra steps to protect their identities and stay out of trouble.

Belarus: VPNs Banned

Vitebsk, Belarus

The country of Belarus is one of the last strongholds of authoritarianism in Eastern Europe. For proof, all you need to do is take a look at the nation’s internet: it’s virtually impossible to do anything online without the government knowing about it.

For starters, ISPs are required to keep extensive logs of all user activity, including URLs and timestamps, and associate them with each user’s ID or passport data. All networks, whether public or private, must be registered with and approved by the government.

Those who are willing and able to jump through all these hoops to get online are presented with such heavy censorship that the title of “worldwide web” barely applies. All websites are blocked unless they’re registered with Belarus’ Information Ministry; e-commerce sites from outside Belarus are permanently inaccessible.

Any sites that promote drug use, contain pornography or host “extremist” content are blacklisted. Belarus’ definition of “extremist” is expansive, encompassing everything from independent news sources to blogs that express pro-democracy views.

Anyone caught visiting a banned website faces a fine of up to $120 USD – an amount that doesn’t seem like a lot until you consider that the average annual income in Belarus is just $250 USD.

Belarusians who used VPNs to access unapproved websites received some unpleasant news in 2016. Citing an increase in drug trafficking due to the dark web, Belarus banned VPNs, Tor and other anonymizing tools.

The effectiveness of the ban is disputed: though officials have stated on the record that VPNs are forbidden, many are still readily accessible even through Belarus’ closed-off internet. It doesn’t appear as if Belarus has the technological capacity to detect and block VPN traffic, so many citizens continue to use VPNs – however, they are still at risk of being fined if caught visiting an unapproved site.

Turkmenistan: VPNs Illegal

Big Brother is alive and well in Turkmenistan, where all internet and mobile broadband communications occur under the constant surveillance of the government. The state owns both the country’s only ISP and its only cell service provider, giving it near-total control over the flow of information in and out of the country.

Only a select few government officials, foreign diplomats and high-ranking businessmen are permitted to access the true internet. The rest of the population must pay exorbitant amounts to access Turkmenet, a heavily censored version of the internet that’s home to just a few government-approved websites.

You won’t find any foreign news sources or social media sites on Turkmenet, nor any website that has ever published anything even slightly critical of Turkmenistan. Users can access a state-run social media site, pro-Turkmenistan news sites in Russian and Turkmen, apolitical NGO websites and a Russia-based email service; all others are blocked.

Attempts to access the wider internet via VPNs are met with great hostility from authorities. If you’re caught using a VPN, you’ll be summoned to a “preventive interview” at the Ministry of National Security; this interview consists mainly of intimidation and psychological manipulation.

Turkmenistan’s censorship situation has been dire for many years, and the country’s treatment of VPN users makes it even worse. But if you’re one of the lucky few to have an internet connection in Turkmenistan, using a VPN is the only way to access most of the web without government interference.

Countries Where VPNs May Be at Risk

The following countries haven’t passed any laws or instituted any official bans on VPNs, but they’ve attacked internet freedom in other alarming ways. If legislators in these countries continue on their current trajectories, citizens could soon find themselves facing legal consequences for using VPNs or other online privacy services.

Ironically, this means that it’s more important than ever to use a VPN in these countries to protect yourself from tracking and monitoring.

Ethiopia

Privacy and Punishment: Are VPNs Legal?

Internet users in Ethiopia got a welcome reprieve in 2018 when the country’s new government unblocked hundreds of previously blacklisted websites. Most of these sites pertained to political activism, independent news and LGBT topics.

However, several worrying anti-privacy practices remain in effect. The Ethiopian government uses a host of surveillance tools, including keyloggers and DPI, to monitor internet users, particularly bloggers and activists.

Surveillance occurs on a physical level too – internet cafes are required to collect names and addresses of customers, who must then keep their screens visible to cafe staff at all times. Most Ethiopians can only access the internet at these cafes because home internet service from the country’s sole (government-run) ISP is prohibitively expensive.

VoIP services like Skype are illegal in Ethiopia; an individual caught using one could face a shocking 15 years in prison. Internet cafes that attempt to offer these services are closed and their owners punished.

Ethiopian law has been silent on the topic of VPNs, but it’s made its stance on internet anonymity in general very clear. Tor is banned in Ethiopia, and the ISP has been instructed to filter out traffic from other tools that mask user identity and other data.

Overall, Ethiopia’s mixed signals on internet freedom indicate an unsure future for VPNs and other privacy-protecting tools. Hopefully the tireless work of Ethiopian free speech advocates will be made easier and more effective by the recent unblocking of activist websites, which in turn could lead to a cessation of government surveillance.

Venezuela

Venezuela’s internet has been open and accessible until quite recently. Beginning in 2013, the government began enacting temporary internet shutdowns and social media blocks that coincided with political protests; these blocks were apparently effective enough to encourage stronger censorship efforts.

Twitter, in particular, has been a prime target for Venezuela’s information repression tactics. The site has repeatedly been ordered by the Venezuelan government to remove images of protests and other content that “creates social distress.”

2018 saw two highly-concerning censorship incidents occur in Venezuela: the blocking of the country’s largest news source, El Nacional, and the banning of Tor. Website blocks have continued into 2019 due to the presidential election crisis, with YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, SoundCloud and Wikipedia becoming inaccessible for hours or days at a time.

The Venezuelan government has made no efforts to mask the reasoning behind its censorship practices – they are explicitly intended to stifle political dissent and limit citizens’ freedom of expression. As a result, VPN usage in Venezuela is on the rise, causing some privacy experts to worry that the government will soon catch on to its prevalence and target VPNs next.

Uganda

VPN laws for Uganda

More Ugandans were arrested for their online posts in 2017 than in any prior year. In response to this surge of unapproved speech, the government of Uganda instituted a bizarre new internet policy in 2018: to curb the spread of “opinions, insults and gossip” online, citizens would now need to pay a daily tax of approximately $0.05 USD to access social media.

The majority of Ugandans survive on less than a dollar a day, so this social media tax is a huge burden, especially considering that it must be paid in addition to existing access and bandwidth fees.

In addition to the tax, the government instructed ISPs to block VPNs as they could be used to circumvent the restrictions. However, it also admitted that it would not be possible to block all VPNs; indeed, the vast majority are still fully accessible and there is no penalty for doing so.

To compensate for its technical limitations, the government attempted to make a financial case against VPNs by telling its citizens that a VPN subscription and bandwidth would be more costly than the social media tax. The argument certainly didn’t sway the ISPs, who are more than happy to collect and keep additional bandwidth payments from VPN users rather than hand over tax payments to authorities.

By its own admission, the Ugandan government isn’t currently able to do anything about VPN use and doesn’t penalize it in any way, so VPNs are still safe and readily available in Uganda. But it would be wise to keep an eye on the situation as it develops, as there’s a clear intent to limit or eliminate VPNs once the technology to do so becomes available.

Fourteen Eyes Nations

You won’t get in trouble for using a VPN in these countries, but you may want to reconsider using a VPN provider based out of them. These 14 countries have entered into a surveillance agreement with one another that gives their intelligence agencies unfettered access to user data from ISPs and web companies – including VPN providers.

At first, there were just Five Eyes in this consortium: Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the UK and the USA. It’s since expanded to contain nine more, plus four unofficial members: Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, France, Italy, Belgium, Germany, Spain and Sweden are confirmed members, while there’s strong evidence that Israel, Japan, Singapore and South Korea also participate.

Fourteen Eyes nations engage in some of history’s most sophisticated – and strange – espionage, openly spying on each other’s citizens upon request to circumvent detection and accusations of illegality. Citizens of these countries are subject not just to their local privacy and data retention laws, but also the laws of the other members.

In many of these nations, authorities have unlimited access to your browsing data and even text message content without a warrant, as ISPs are required to keep logs of this activity for several years. VPN providers and other private companies are also required to turn over even more detailed user data upon request, and thanks to the prevalence of gag orders, they’re often forbidden from telling users when they do so.

Even if your VPN provider doesn’t have any encryption keys to hand over, the government can force it to cooperate in other ways. One USA-based VPN provider was essentially taken over by the FBI after agents demanded live SSL access to its servers, allowing for real-time monitoring of all VPN traffic – and users had no idea due to a gag order placed on the company.

As a VPN user, you don’t want any eyes on your data, let alone 14 of them. For privacy’s sake, it’s best to use a VPN provider that’s not based in any of these surveillance-obsessed countries.

Countries Where VPNs are Safe and Secure

We’ve seen some terrible privacy practices on our journey so far, but things aren’t so bleak everywhere. In a few countries, the free and open internet doesn’t just exist, it’s celebrated and protected – which makes these nations havens for VPNs.

Estonia

In Estonia, internet access has been officially declared a human right. It was the first country in the world to implement online voting and has one of the highest internet penetration rates on Earth, with over 88% of the population having internet access.

ISPs and internet companies in Estonia are subject to the EU’s data retention laws, which state that location and traffic data must be retained for one year and provided to police upon receipt of a court order. However, Estonia has gone to great lengths to protect its citizens’ sensitive information: political beliefs, race, religion, health, criminal history and sexual behavior are fully protected and may not be used in any way without an individual’s consent.

These protections suggest that Estonia will not cooperate with any country seeking user data based on any of these criteria, nor will it attempt to censor any web content pertaining to them. With such strong freedom of speech laws and a commitment to technological advancement, Estonia is a great place to be a VPN user or provider.

Switzerland

VPNs flourish in Switzerland thanks to the country’s privacy-conscious laws. Though Switzerland has data retention laws, they’re only applicable to the largest telecom companies; VPN providers are exempt, meaning that a Swiss VPN provider can truly adhere to its no-logs policy.

Switzerland is not a member of the EU or any international surveillance cohorts. Surveillance requests from other countries are highly scrutinized and refused if they don’t hold up to Switzerland’s strict privacy laws, so no matter where you live, your data is safe in Switzerland.

Staying Safe While Using a VPN

No matter what country you’re in, a VPN will protect your data – but you still might not be 100% in the clear. Whether or not VPNs are legal in your jurisdiction, we recommend taking the time to consider a few things before using one.

VPNs and Illegal Activities

Privacy and Punishment: Are VPNs Legal?

Illegal activities don’t become legal just because you’re using a VPN. When you download copyrighted content, cyberstalk someone or purchase black market goods from behind a VPN, you’re still breaking the law and could still be prosecuted if you’re caught – a VPN isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card for cybercrimes.

VPN Provider Policies

Always check your VPN provider’s terms of use and privacy policies before signing up. Many providers claim that they don’t keep logs even though they do; you’ll be able to learn the truth by reading their legally binding policies carefully.

The best logging policy is a no-logging policy. Even if your provider is forced to hand over your data to law enforcement, they can’t give any information they don’t have.

Additionally, check these policies for any mentions of streaming, geo-restrictions or P2P filesharing if you intend to use your VPN for these purposes. These activities go against some providers’ terms of use and could result in your account being terminated.

Many providers assign shared IP addresses to their users to further complicate the process of tracking any one individual’s activity. If you’re concerned with your web history being traced back to you, select a provider that uses shared IPs.

Finally, check your provider’s payment policy; this may be separate from the other policies and include its own clauses pertaining to logging. The most secure providers won’t keep payment logs and will often allow anonymous payment methods like Bitcoin, preventing your financial institutions from knowing about your VPN use.

VPNs and Website Policies

Some websites, particularly streaming sites like Netflix and BBC iPlayer, don’t permit users to access the site through VPNs. They accomplish this by blocking popular VPNs and including a clause in their terms of use.

You won’t get in legal trouble for violating this clause, but don’t expect your account to stick around for long if you’re caught using a VPN on these sites. Consequences for violating a site’s terms of use typically include account deletion and a ban on account creation in the future.

Related Questions

There’s a lot more to VPNs than their legality – take a look at these topics to further expand your VPN knowledge!

How Does VPN Encryption Work?

There are many types of VPN encryption; most work by scrambling and transforming your data using a secret key that’s only available to the VPN client and server. Some methods prioritize security over speed while others do the opposite, using simpler keys to produce faster loading times.

Who Should Use a VPN?

You don’t have to be an activist or a hacker to benefit from the security a VPN provides. Businessmen, bloggers and binge-watchers can all take advantage of a VPN’s numerous identity-protecting capabilities.

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