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India's Anti-VPN Plan a Threat to Privacy, Internet Freedom: Experts

The Quint spoke to experts to understand how VPN restriction is a blow to net neutrality.

Updated
Tech and Auto
4 min read
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The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs wants VPNs to be blocked. It has asked the Indian government to obstruct access to virtual private networks, alleging that such services enable 'criminals to remain anonymous online.'

Interestingly, this development comes months after the government liberalised the usage of VPN by Other Service Providers (OSPs), in view of the ensuing coronavirus pandemic – as VPNs allow people to work from home securely, while allaying employers' fears of loss of information and cyber threats.

With a VPN, you can maintain your privacy, bypass location-gated content, get around filtered networks, and lots more.

It is worth noting that VPN use is perfectly legal in India. However, there are concerns that the service can be used to pirate copyrighted content or commit other cyber crimes.
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Why is the Committee Against VPN Usage?

Here's why the Parliamentary committee wants the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeiTy) to block VPN usage:

  • Increase in pirating of copyrighted content

  • Dark web marketplaces are usually accessed through VPNs and have become increasingly popular ways to buy weapons, drugs and to avail other illegal services

  • Cybercriminals use VPNs to hack, stalk, and steal information while remaining completely anonymous online.

Blocking VPN Usage: A Blow to Net Neutrality

Rohin Garg, Policy Counsel at The Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), called the blocking of VPNs a 'blow not just to net neutrality but also to user privacy.'

VPN usage in India has especially shot up in the last year, as pandemic induced digitalisation forced more and more people to go online.

Garg told The Quint that people use VPNs for a host of activities, from improving their online security to streaming geo-blocked content on streaming services like Netflix to accessing blocked websites.

"VPNs are a part of India's internet ecosystem now. So, an outright ban on their usage would be a significant blow (to net neutrality)," he added.

Net Neutrality encapsulates the idea of open and equal access for all users across communities and jurisdictions.

"Without VPNs, Indian users will be at a disadvantaged position than their western counterparts. Blocking VPNs will also impact the idea of an open, globally connected, secure and trustworthy internet."
Shruti Shreya , Research Associate The Dialogue,

Why Are VPNs important?

There are multiple reasons to use VPNs, the most crucial of them being for business.

The growth of the Indian Information Technology Enabled Services (IT-ITes) sector is owed to the data protection and privacy respecting regime in India.

These companies rely on VPNs for safe, secure and private communication. Sharing confidential data on a public network is a cybersecurity nightmare, rendering the said data susceptible to cyber attacks.

VPNs have been used for a long time by businesses for remote or mobile access, connecting the home office to different branches and even for business-to-business communication. They are particularly helpful during the pandemic, allowing employees to work safely from their homes.

According to the National Cyber Security Coordinator, India faces around 375 cyberattacks on a daily basis. In such circumstances, banning VPNs will bring a major segment of the Indian IT-ITes sector to a standstill and kindle massive employment challenges.

Shruti Shreya , Research Associate at The Dialogue, a privacy policy think tank, told The Quint that VPNs are a crucial tool for the privacy, safety and security of journalists.

"In order to ensure the privacy and security of not just themselves but also that of their sources, journalists rely on encryption and VPNs enable secure communication. In addition to anonymity, this technology permits them to access content in foreign jurisdictions, which is subjected to geo-restrictions," she added.

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India a Constitutional Democracy Unlike China, North Korea

Unlike totalitarian regimes, India is a constitutional democracy, where everyone enjoys the fundamental right to privacy.

Prasanth Sugathan, Legal Director, at Software Foundation Legal Centre (SFLC.in) pointed out that most of the countries that have blocked VPN usage – such as North Korea, China, and Iraq – are all authoritarian regimes, which block wide content for its users impacting their free speech.

"We have a fundamental right to privacy and free speech, all of which will be impacted with a ban on VPN services," he noted.

In Anuradha Bhasin vs Union of India (2020), the Supreme Court ruled that when access to the internet is crucial to continue a trade or profession, then the same is protected under Article 19(1)g of the Indian Constitution.

"Given that journalists and businesses rely on VPNs to communicate securely, access to VPNs is similarly protected as a constitutionally guaranteed right," Shreya asserted.

Why Censorship Won't Work

It is worth noting that while VPNs are banned in China, the country is still among the top 10 markets for the technology, according to a report by TechRadar.

This shows that any censorship mechanism is likely to be abused at one point. Countries with a restrictive reputation around civil rights and freedom of speech are usually the ones that ban or restrict VPN use.

While the concern around rapid proliferation of harmful online content is legitimate, it is also important to keep in mind that merely banning VPN will not resolve the persisting cybersecurity threats.

Technology is a double-edged sword. Like while facial recognition can help arrest crimes or locate missing persons, it can also be used for intrusive surveillance by regimes.

And a blanket ban is unlikely to derail criminal activities online.

"The ban of VPNs will only lead to greater challenges as savvy criminals can shift to unregulated services like Tor browser or Tails OS to mask themselves."
Shruti Shreya , Research Associate, The Dialogue

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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