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What are VPNs? How Do they Work? Is India Going to Ban VPNs?

Sep 13, 2021 3:14 AM 6 min read

Indian policymakers seem to be in two minds about virtual private networks (aka VPNs).

Last year, the Union Government liberalised the Other Service Providers (OSPs) sector by encouraging the official usage of VPNs in light of the rising work-from-home trends in the IT industry. The move was largely applauded and went a long way in facilitating remote working in the tech industry.

But on August 10th, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs tabled a report (link to pdf) urging the Union Government to ban VPNs altogether. It highlighted the "technological challenge" these networks posed by allowing "criminals to remain anonymous online". The Committee also recommended that "tracking and surveillance mechanisms [be strengthened] to put a check on the use of VPN and the dark web”.

While this is merely a recommendation (the IT Ministry has remained mum about it so far, and might very well remain so), this does give us a chance to revisit what VPNs do exactly and their legal status - and significance - in India and abroad.

What are VPNs?

They are secure connections (usually positioned in a different jurisdiction) that you can link your smartphone or laptop to for an extra layer of security and privacy.

Basically, they hide information regarding your IP address, location, downloads, uploads, network traffic etc. from your Internet Service Provider (ISP), third-party trackers, websites you visit, malwares etc.


How Do VPNs Work?

Without a VPN: Your connection goes from your computer to your local ISP and then to the destination server. Anybody can theoretically "peek" into this chain at any time to identify and track your internet activity.

With a VPN: Your internet traffic goes between your computer and the VPN server, and this is encrypted. Meaning, anyone on the outside looking in won't be able to make sense of anything. Beyond the VPN, where your connection heads for the destination server, the traffic mixes with other traffic from people on the same VPN server, such that anyone paying attention still won't be able to comprehend where the connection is from or headed back towards.


Disadvantages of VPNs

Now, while the above process seems foolproof, there are limitations. Many VPN services (especially the free ones) are point-to-point connections. Meaning, they don't support broadcast domains. And many websites (Netflix, BBC, Hulu etc.) have built strong firewalls to block VPN access.

Furthermore, unless you’re using a really good service, VPNs can slow your internet speed. The paid options in the market tend to perform better - but then money becomes a factor. How much are you willing to shell out to make yourself anonymous online?

Above all, if you're going to entrust a VPN with your internet activity, you're essentially treating it as your ISP. Therefore, your data is as secure as your VPN provider is reliable. Unless the latter takes utmost care to not log your information and sell it to third-parties for a killing, it defeats the purpose of installing a VPN in the first place.

FYI: Some popular VPN providers in India include ExpressVPN, IPVanish, NordVPN, TorGuard, CyberGhost, NordVPN etc. The global VPN market has been estimated at $35.4bn as of 2020, and is projected to reach $107.6bn by 2027.


What a VPN Does (And Doesn’t Do)

VPNs are good tools if you're looking to limit online tracking by websites (for example, for targeted ads). They can also secure your system when you're on a public WiFi or on a connection you don't trust, like at the airport or in a café (which can be quite risky).

These servers are also popular in the corporate world, where companies use them to safeguard networks and data from hackers. They are also helpful in geographic location-shifting, albeit not always (for instance, you'd find it difficult to access American Netflix while sitting in Mumbai).

Of course, VPNs can also be used by bad actors to give law enforcement agencies the slip and break the law while engaging in illegal activity. There are also a lot of proxies and free options out there that misguide consumers into trusting them with their personal data, and eventually inflicting more damage than a rogue ISP might.

What are VPNs? How Do they Work? Is India Going to Ban VPNs?All said and done, your network provider will still be able to keep a record of your IP address, even if you hide most of your network activity from them. Moreover, there's only so much you can do against government tracking, VPN or not (think Snowden revelations, Wikileaks, Pegasus spyware etc.).

For What It’s Worth: And it's not like Big Brother operates behind an opaque curtain. Much of the justification for “legal” internet surveillance is done in broad daylight, almost always rationalised citing "national security" or "law and order", and casually shrugged off by most of us. Last year, for example, a Bill was introduced in the US Senate that could grant Uncle Sam backdoor access to encryption in communication services. The number of content removal requests received by Twitter from India has skyrocketed in the last two years. GoI has still not unambiguously denied accusations that it used Pegasus to spy on journalists and Opposition leaders, aided by the lack of mainstream outrage over the issue. And let’s not get started on India’s record on digital rights...


India and VPNs

Three points here. One, over the past few years, censures on online content have escalated in the country. The latter includes bans on pornographic content as well as politically sensitive ones (which is a very, very broad umbrella, from separatist propaganda to tweets about the Government’s mishandling of the Second Wave of COVID-19 to Facebook posts calling on the PM to resign over the same). There were also the bans on popular Chinese apps (including the widely popular PUBG), which were the result of geopolitical clashes.

Then there are internet shutdowns, of which India holds the ominous distinction of being the world leader. According to democracy watchdog Freedom House, India imposed the highest number of internet shutdowns in 2019-20 in the world, even excluding the ones in J&K. The country’s score on internet freedom, as of last year, was 51 out of 100, labelling it “partly free”.

And three, the pandemic has fuelled the digital economy and encouraged internet adoption across industry sectors. This, coupled with the already surging internet penetration, has sparked interest in ways to safeguard yourself when online.

The combination of the above three factors have made India the hottest market for VPNs globally. In H12021, VPN installs surged by nearly 7x to 348.7 million, faster than any other country. Overall, India has the fourth-highest level of VPN usage after Qatar, UAE and Singapore. When it comes to the share of internet users using VPNs, India (with 43%) comes second to only Indonesia (55%).

FYI: About 30% of internet users globally reportedly use a VPN at least once a month.


The Crux of the Matter

Your stance on whether an elected government should be allowed to ban a widely used internet service can be seen as a litmus test for your answer to an increasingly important question: Is private browsing a right?

Despite what the Parliamentary Standing Committee may have implied, VPNs are not only about cybercriminals and dark web operatives. Millions of everyday Indians use them to avoid tracking by tech companies or simply because they feel uncomfortable being digitally followed by prying eyes - regardless of what they want to read or watch online: privacy, after all, is a fundamental right. To say nothing of how crucial these networks are to countless companies and employees working from home. Wanting to fight crime by obliterating an entire industry vertical is akin to carpet-bombing a forest to nab one dacoit.

Moreover, the list of countries that have already banned VPNs reads like a who’s-who of who-not-to-be-on-a-list-with. China, North Korea, Russia, Belarus, Iraq… Not exactly the best examples to emulate, are they?

What’s more, in a future without VPNs, the state can ban any website on a whim and citizens would have no easy way to access them. Not only does this tarnish the country’s digital rights record, but it also enforces a culture of self-censorship, with powerless citizens helplessly pitted against an all-mighty state with no recourse. That’s hardly a healthy image for the world’s largest democracy.


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