Virtual private networks, or VPNs, have become commonplace for accessing entertainment content and protecting privacy online. But copyright holders claim illegal streaming activity via VPNs costs billions in lost revenues. A recent proposal to mandate expanded VPN detection tools across all online services rekindled tensions around rights protections versus user privacy. As an experienced cybersecurity professional, I aim to provide an insider perspective on the complexities at stake.
VPN Usage Takes Off
VPNs initially appealed to a niche tech crowd, but simpler apps like CyberGhost and ExpressVPN brought the technology mainstream. VPN usage grew over 28% globally last year according to Atlas VPN. Consumers increasingly utilize VPNs to access restricted content libraries when traveling or living abroad. Circumventing geo-blocking became widespread enough to prompt crackdowns from major streamers like Netflix.
But VPNs also provide important privacy benefits beyond gaming geoblocks. VPN traffic is encrypted and IP addresses obscured, protecting against surveillance from hackers or even internet providers. Activists and journalists rely on VPNs to shield sensitive communications and access censored information under repressive regimes. With tracking and data collection pervasive online, many adopt VPNs just for everyday anonymity.
An Escalating Game of Whack-A-Mole
For over a decade, copyright holders pressured governments to curb piracy enabled by VPN access to banned streaming sites. India recently ordered ISPs to block over 1,100 piracy domains. Australia proposed new site blocking powers in 2021. The U.S. Trade Representative places countries on watch lists for not sufficiently enforcing copyright rules. Rotation of IP addresses by VPN services resembles a never-ending “whack-a-mole” game according to the U.S. Copyright Office.
Major platforms like Netflix and Hulu already restrict known VPN IP addresses to enforce geo-licensing. But simply blacklisting VPN server IPs has proven futile given the volumes shifting dynamically. Forensic traffic analysis methods can detect usage patterns indicative of VPN connections. Some firms claim over 99% effectiveness.
|Global Online Piracy Losses
|VPN Global User Growth 2021
The Slippery Slope of Mandated Detection
Copyright groups now pressure to mandate similar VPN detection capabilities across all online services, not just streaming sites. Cybersecurity firm GeoComply even recommended it to the U.S. Copyright Office. But what would society-wide VPN restrictions entail?
A sweeping VPN ban in Russia last year provided a preview. Over 21 million Russian IP addresses were blacklisted, effectively prohibiting VPN use entirely. Iran also rolled out similar VPN restrictions despite reliance on them to circumvent regime censorship.
Some claim required VPN detection could turn the entire internet into an instrument for government and corporate surveillance. Users most needing privacy protection like political dissidents may face greater peril. Even basic VPN use for anonymizing shopping or financial transactions would raise red flags.
Reconciling Copyright and User Rights
Copyright protections spur creative investment yet can also limit access and free expression. The U.S. fair use doctrine permits unauthorized use under certain conditions. Critics say absolute territorial licensing ignores fair use freedoms that should flexibly apply regardless of location. I see merits to both perspectives.
The sheer breadth of VPN detection under consideration seems disproportionate and overreaching. However, services specifically built around infringing access to copyrighted material may warrant action. A nuanced approach targeting piracy infrastructure beyond just users could be more pragmatic. Site blocking presented carefully has achieved results as well.
I advise copyright advocates to pursue options that protect creators without overpolicing customers or forcing intrusive surveillance. User privacy does not necessitate trampling copyrights. But neither should copyright totally subordinate individual liberty. Onerous location tracking and VPN detection mandates applied in blanket fashion would undermine the values of an open internet. Through cooperation and fairness, we can forge solutions preserving both creative incentives and user protections.