VPNs: Legal Or Illegal?

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As virtual private networks are often used for things that aren’t completely legal, like torrenting copyrighted material or circumventing Chinese censorship, it might seem plausible to think that VPNs are illegal. The good news is that in most of the world, VPNs are perfectly legal. The bad news is that, in a small number of countries, they can get you into trouble.

VPNs Are Legal Almost Everywhere …

First, though, let’s look at the situation in most of the world. If you live in the United States, Canada, Africa, South America, or most of Asia and Europe, VPNs are perfectly legal. Signing up for one and using it for whatever reason you need to won’t get you in trouble with authorities or your internet service provider.

Although VPNs are used for all kinds of shady purposes, from downloading copyrighted files to committing cybercrimes, most governments seem to understand that VPNs have legitimate uses, too, and thus, have taken little to no action against them. The FBI even recommends using one when on an open network.

That being said, VPNs don’t magically make the things that you’re doing legal: If you use a VPN to remain anonymous in order to threaten somebody online, you’ll still get in trouble for doing so. It’s just the VPN part that’s legal about that—saying that you’ll hurt somebody is still not OK.

Think of it like wearing a mask while robbing a bank: It’s legal to buy and wear a mask, but it’s illegal to rob a bank.

… Except Where They’re Not

The Chinese flag reflected in a surveillance camera.
Novikov Aleksey/Shutterstock.com

However, in some parts of the world, the relative anonymity that VPNs provide is a thorn in the side of the government. In these countries, VPNs are either forbidden outright, or their use is limited. The three that are in the news in 2021 are China, Russia, and Belarus. However, there are others, which we’ll discuss a little further down.

The first (and in many ways, best) example is China. We’ve talked about what the internet looks like in the Middle Kingdom before: It’s basically a sanitized version of the web that doesn’t contain too much free speech and definitely no criticism of the government. Unsurprisingly, there’s a fine imposed for being caught with a VPN there, although we’ve heard rumors that greater penalties await repeat offenders.

Russia isn’t much better: The Russian telecommunications agency Roskomnadzor blacklists certain sites (usually under the cover of combating “extremism”) and has made it illegal to use a VPN to get past the block. However, note that using one is legal, as long as you don’t do anything illegal with it. But once you break the law, using the VPN becomes illegal. 

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