NOTE: This article does not constitute legal advice and is provided simply for informational purposes. It is always your responsibility to make sure you are aware of your local laws. Consult a qualified legal professional to advise you.
|Country||Are VPNs Legal?||Country||Are VPNs Legal?|
|Iraq||No||Iran||Only Approved VPNs|
|UAE||Only Approved VPNs||North Korea||No|
|Oman||Not for Personal VPNs|
VPNs are a powerful way to protect your identity and your information when on the web. With so many people out there just looking for the next victim of identity theft or other shady dealings it’s good to know that we can still do something as regular citizens to protect ourselves.
These days, acquiring and setting up a VPN is both cheap and easy. There’s no technological reason why should avoid the technology. However, if you live in one of the countries we’ll be looking at here, using a VPN can get you a fine, jail time or worse.
Why Do Some Countries Make VPNs Illegal?
If you look at the (thankfully short) list of countries that have put legal restrictions on the use of VPNs. you might notice that they all share a few traits in common. Mainly their government is known for taking a dim view of dissenting opinions. They tend to be conservative, authoritarian, have only one real political party and have leaders who stay on long past their welcome.
In other words, these are countries that don’t really like the freedom of speech or close scrutiny from the international community. That’s why we tend to see bans on social media, blogs and other tools that support citizen journalism. One of the most famous examples of this the role of social media in the Arab Spring. A social movement that leads to the eventual toppling of Hosni Mubarak, the (then) president of Egypt.
Of course, the reasons that these countries give as official justification to ban or regulate VPNs usually revolves around the idea that VPNs aid criminal activity. It’s an attitude of “guilty until proven innocent”. But there’s no evidence one way or another that a significant percentage of VPN users are criminals.
Controlling what information the citizens of a country are exposed to has long been the keystone of maintaining a nation that is short on personal liberty. The internet makes that job much more difficult, which makes the eventual flexing of legal and political might unsurprising.
How Do They Ban VPNs?
It’s not that all of these countries have simply banned the use of VPN technology in all cases. Some have merely regulated them so that you cannot use a VPN to hide what you do from the government itself. So there may be a list of approved VPNs who must report their user list to the state. Alternatively, there are specific use cases where you must apply for permission.
Obviously, this can only apply to VPN providers who are based in that country and are therefore subject to their laws.
Often the government will order ISPs to block the IP addresses of known VPN providers. They may also make it a legal requirement to block certain ports. These are all technical blocks to prevent the use of VPNs. However, this is only good enough to keep the average citizen away from the technology. Tech-savvy people will always find a way around VPN blocking, so bans are enforced with legal consequences.
If the law in your country says that you may not use a VPN at all or only use it under certain conditions then violating those laws will come with penalties. Each country is going to vary in the type and severity of these, but none of them are pleasant. Mainly it’s this fear of punishment that these governments believe will keep people in line and away from VPNs.
Countries That Have Legislated a VPN Ban
Below I talk about the countries that currently have a legal ban or regulation when it comes to VPN use. If you live in one of these countries then legally you are not free to simply sign up for a VPN service and be on your way. You’ll either never be allowed to use one or will have to comply with some conditions. In some cases, you may have to go through an approval process.
If your country is not on this list then, at the time of writing, there is no official legal sanction against VPNs. That does not mean your government isn’t unofficially harassing VPN users, so be sure to keep an ear out for any stories where VPN providers or ISPs are hassled by men in suits.
You might have heard of the Great Firewall of China, which is the nickname given to the system of internet regulation and censorship that the Chinese government exerts with an iron fist. China sees the internet inside its borders as something it should assert total control over and so blocks have been instituted on almost all of the internet services those of us in other countries might take for granted. This includes anything with the word “Google” in front of it, Facebook, Youtube, Chinese Wikipedia. Look the list is very, very long.
If you access the internet from within mainland China and tried to get news or social media content not approved by the government, you’ll just hit a brick wall. That is unless you use a VPN. So predictably in July of 2017, the Chinese government ordered Chinese ISPs to block the use of VPNs.
Most of the legal issues are not aimed at individuals, but service providers themselves. However, in some local areas such as Chongqing setting up a VPN or similar connection for yourself or someone else can carry a fine of over $2000.
Turkey has been known for a long time as one of the great success stories of the Islamic world. It’s been a relatively free and prosperous nation that had good relations with the Western world.
In the last few years, however, the country has been going through a rather rough time and even its bid to become a member of the EU is no longer looking likely. The current president and his government are not fans of social media and have instituted social media bans when things in the country have been at their lowest.
There’s actually an excellent site called Turkey Blocks which maps the government’s actions against specific internet services as they happen. In December of 2016, they reported that serious VPN crackdowns had commenced in the nation and it seems to be permanent.
Iraq was and remains a conflict hotspot on the world stage. Following the major disruptions after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the country has struggled to return to stability and normality. The latest fly in the peace ointment is the ISIS organisation, which has been causing havoc in the war-torn state. ISIS is notable for being incredibly adept at using social media for propaganda, organisation, and recruitment. So in a purported effort to halt these efforts the Iraq government has blocked access to these services.
Incredibly this is one of the most subtle approaches the Iraqi government has taken since in the past it has simply switched of the internet in the country entirely. A sledgehammer approach to censorship in anyone’s book.
As you might expect, VPNs are also part of the block and if you’re caught using one to access content the Iraqi government doesn’t like, you could end up in hot water.
United Arab Emirates
The UAE is an absolute monarchy, one of the last few nations in the world to have such a system. It has one of the strictest legal punishment regimes in the world. With extensive use of corporal punishments for acts that would barely be crimes in the rest of the world. The country also has many strictures around acceptable speech and behavior. Especially when it comes to religious matters. For example, in 2012 a number of online activists were arrested.
VPNs are the friend of UAE residents who want to get the word out on government abuses and so there are legal measures in place against them.
UAE laws around VPNs are however quite complicated. The Cybercrime law essentially specifies that it is illegal to use a VPN for the purpose of committing a crime. In other words, it’s not so much that VPNs themselves are illegal, but if you use them to get around services or content the government has blocked you could face a prison sentence or a huge fine.
The UAE telecoms authority says that VPNs are not banned as long as you use them to do legal things. However it is exactly the list of things the government wants to be blocked that people want VPNs for in the first place, so it becomes a moot point.
Unlike the UAE, the law around VPNs in the nation of the Oman Sultanate is quite clear. Personal use of a VPN is illegal and carries a fine of over a thousand dollars. Even before the law specifically making VPNs illegal was proposed, VPNs were de facto illegal as a form of unlicensed encryption. Institutional use of VPNs is legal in Oman if permission is granted by the government.
Russia has never been known as a bastion of freedom. Russian President (and perennial internet meme) Vladimir Putin has long put the kibosh on any dissent or speech the powers that be don’t like. In July of 2017, the president reportedly signed a law banning VPNs. The law itself is set to go into effect on the first of November 2017.
This is the latest in a long line of laws Putin has signed to take control of public information. It’s a way to crack down on access to content the government says is not acceptable.
Although Belarus is no longer officially a part of Russia, they have taken more than a few pages from the Putin playbook. At least when it comes to internet freedoms. Given that it’s one of the last real dictatorships in Europe, it should surprise no one that freedom of information is not high on the list of things the government likes. The current president, Alexander Lukashenko, is also the first president of Belarus as it is today. A position he took in 1994 and still holds today in 2017. You can do the math yourself.
In Belarus, it is illegal (since 2012) to visit foreign websites. To do so can net a hapless Belarusian a fine equal to half the average salary in the country, $120. In 2015 more laws were passed that forced ISPs to spy on their users and keep records for government use.
Using a VPN to access foreign sites can, therefore, get a Belarus user in hot water.
Like the UAE, Iraq, and Oman, Iran is not a big fan of information from the outside world getting to its citizens. Unlike those countries, Iran is actually a republic and not an absolute monarchy. Iran has a president who only has a term of four years. Except that above the president, there is a supreme leader who does not have a limited term and has the final say in all decisions. So, OK maybe it’s not that different after all.
Iran really doesn’t like the idea of its people being exposed to the wider world and has gone as far as building a national intranet which can be cut off from the world-wide-web and is entirely government controlled.
Like the UAE, VPN use is not banned in a blanket fashion. Instead, you can use VPN services from a list of registered and government-approved providers. Yeah, you can see where this is going. Ironically, this does not seem to have stopped even government officials from using VPNs.
It feels weird to even put this reclusive hermit state on the list. Why? Because it almost doesn’t matter whether VPNs are legal or illegal in North Korea. After all, there’s barely any internet at all. While it’s difficult to know the exact details of, well, anything in that country it seems that there are only about 7000 web users there as a whole. Almost all of these are part of the government. Which means if you in North Korea and are reading this you already know that VPNs are illegal there. You made them illegal in the first place.
OK, to be more accurate, only about 7000 people in the country have access to the global net. Other citizens have access to a special government-owned intranet that apparently only has 28 websites. Any attempt to gain unsanctioned access to the wider web will likely not end well for the perpetrator.
It’s About More than Laws
These countries have gone to an extraordinary extent by actually putting laws on the books. That or technologies that broadly include VPN services. For people who live in this country, using a VPN without the express blessing of the government in question is a pretty risky business.
Even when a country doesn’t blatantly ban VPNs directly, there may be many other ways they can make a life for VPN users difficult, dangerous or both.
First of all, your ISP may be required to keep detailed records of when you use VPN technology. Even if they don’t know what you’re doing, they know you’re using technology to hide what you are doing. Your country’s body of privacy laws (the internet or otherwise) says a lot about how much you should worry that using a VPN could get you in trouble.
Also, remember that using a VPN for illegal activities doesn’t make them any less illegal. It just makes it harder for it to be discovered. VPNs don’t provide total anonymity, so you should be wary even if the VPN technology itself is legal in your country.
The Rest of Us Shouldn’t Get Comfortable
It can be easy to feel a little smug if you live in a country that doesn’t restrict your ability to use a VPN in order to protect your own privacy. Don’t get too cocky, however. The path to internet censorship is always just a few laws away from becoming a reality. For those of us who currently enjoy these freedoms, it’s important not to forget that.
Privacy is a right that we have to vigilantly defend. There’s always a struggle between the powers that be and the common people. We just want to live our lives free of interference. If the balance tips too much one way or another the consequences can be pretty awful.The countries on this list also serve as a lesson to the rest of us. They teach us to value and protect the rights we do have.
If you are lucky enough to live in a country where using a VPN is legal then you better make sure you’re using one of the good ones. Be sure to check out which we think are the best VPNs in 2017.