The ethics of VPN…

Douglas Crawford

Douglas Crawford

May 21, 2013

…and why we should all be using it…

In around the year 1554 CE Johannes Gutenberg printed Europe’s first book with moveable type, the Gutenberg Bible, and sparked what is known as the ‘printing revolution’. By 1500 around 20 million printed books were in circulation, rising to between 150 to 200 million over the next century. Although a few far sighted individuals had already started the slow process of puling Europe out of the intellectual stagnation that was the Middle Ages, it was the spread of the printing press that dragged the rest of Europe (often kicking and screaming) into a new dawn, the age we now know as the Renaissance, and the beginnings of the modern world.

Although we now tend to remember the Renaissance for the extraordinary flowering of art, literature, science and exploration that catapulted European civilization into the dominant position it has enjoyed for the last 500 years (but which is only now perhaps giving way to new cultural possibilities), at the time it caused much trauma and hand-wringing, particularly from those with wealth and influence, whose power rested on the old certainties of land, military strength and an intellectual landscape monopolised by a medieval Christian mindset that supported their right to power, and violently prosecuted those who questioned it.

In the riot of ideas and freedoms of expression that mass printing fermented, were many new concepts quickly condemned as heretical, blasphemous and seditious. Yet it was from this potent and chaotic mix, that in the face of almost universal mass opposition from the old powerbases of nobility and Church who had a vested in  maintaining the status quo, concepts such religious toleration, universal equality, human rights, and a world that was explainable and discoverable through scientific investigation began to form.

Despite the human race living in technological free-fall for the last 500 hundred years, in the first years of the 21st century, society, fuelled by ever faster technological development, is changing at an unprecedented rate. Critical to this change is the mass spread of the internet, which has grown from 394 million users bin 2000 to 2.4 billion users (34.3% of the population) in 2012.

What this means is that in richer countries almost every member of the population not only has access to pretty much the sum of all human knowledge so far, but can readily and directly communicate with a huge section of the human race, bypassing traditional filters such as the media. As internet access continues its rapid global spread, these benefits are increasingly becoming available people everywhere.

A consequence of this is that existing power structures, both political and economic (if such a distinction can even be meaningfully made) feel increasingly under threat as the very socio-economic foundations of their power are challenged, much like printing did to the medieval power structures, by a new mass democratising technology.

Their response, like that of the Renaissance nobility and Church, has been predictably blunt yet forceful. While it is true that nobody is tortured and burned at the stake these days (at least in most countries, although cases such as that of WikiLeaks whistle-blower Bradley Manning serve as chilling echoes of days gone by), Governments and Business interests worldwide are determined to bring the internet to heel. With almost unlimited wealth and legislative power at their disposal, the battle for who will control the internet: vested power interests or the ordinary people, is now very much under way.

For our protection?

A favourite tactic throughout history for those wanting to quash freedom of expression or to extend the authoritative powers, is to generate moral panic. This is not to say that dark and squalid areas of the human spirit do not exist, or that action should not be taken to prevent evil and vile acts, but that fear of such things is often deliberately vastly exaggerated ,and used to justify wholesale assaults on the our notions of liberty, privacy and human rights. In the UK for example, anti-terrorism laws following the 7/7 bombings have been used, among many other things, to justify incarceration without trial and ‘secret courts’, where even the accused is denied access to the evidence against them, while in the US the post 9/11 Patriot Act gives government agencies an almost blank check to invade citizens privacy when investigating anything  linked, however tenuously, with ‘terrorism’.

The twin demons of child pornography and terrorism, joined by the new but much less morally compelling boogyman of online-piracy, are being used as an excuse to take wildly disproportionate chunks out of our civil liberties.

We have articles discussing specific legislation in the US, Canada, UK and Europe, but in all cases the trend is chillingly clear –governments want (or already have) all emails, text messages, phone calls, and web sites visited by every one of their citizens recorded, stored, and accessible to often wide ranges of government authorised agencies, usually with little or no judicial oversight (or indeed safeguards against such sensitive information falling into the wrong hands).

A good example of this process at work is the forthcoming Unites States Protecting Children from Internet Pornography Act of 2011 (Canada was forced to drop a very similar piece of legislation earlier this year (2013) due to mass opposition). This act requires ISPs to retain customers’ IP addresses, phone numbers, credit card details, bank account numbers, dynamic IP addresses and information on all web sites visited. This information will be available to any law enforcement official regarding any issue (i.e. not just child pornography) who can produce probable cause and a warrant.

It is true that child pornography does exist on the internet, although whether the internet is ‘awash’ with it as is regularly claimed, is highly dubious. Consider: in the United States there are around 272.1 million internet users, while only around 10,000 child pornography consumers are known to exist (0.0000037% of the internet using population). Now, even assuming the problem was massively greater than has so far been detected, say by a factor of times a thousand, that means that for the misdeeds of 0.0037% of internet users, the entire population of the US may be subjected to blanket surveillance on a scale that even George Orwell would not have dreamed of in his worst nightmares (also bear in mind that the existing the Protect Our Children Act of 2008 gives police adequate powers to investigate and collect information on child pornographers).

To say this is a disproportionate response would be to put it mildly!  It does however play directly into the hands of those who wish to restrict internet freedoms.  Johan Schlüter, head of the Danish Anti-Piracy Group (Antipiratgruppen) could not have made the point clearer when he said in an unguarded comment:

“Child pornography is great… Politicians do not understand file sharing, but they understand child pornography, and they want to filter that to score points with the public. Once we get them to filter child pornography, we can get them to extend the block to file sharing.” May 27, 2007.

The Anti-piracy lobby

Without going into the rights and wrongs of copyright infringement, aka file sharing, itself (which we may explore in a future article), the anti-piracy lobby, funded from the vast corporate coffers of the various entertainment industries, has been the single most devastating force pushing for the complete erosion of the individual’s right to privacy.

In the United States, in the name of protecting copyright, domain names are seized without due process and visitors ‘wiretapped’, in the UK websites such as the PirateBay have been ordered censored by the courts, who have also ordered ISP’s to use previously installed child pornography filters to censor copyright infractions. The widely vilified ACTA,  CISPA (US) and CCDP (UK), which all aimed to give government blanket surveillance powers with little or no judicial oversight, and which would make it easy for antipiracy lawyers to find and prosecute infringers, where largely a result pressure from the entertainment industries in pursuit of file shares.

There is no moral imperative here, or indeed much pretence at one. Big wealthy business interests will do anything to protect their lucrative monopolies, including trample over just about everyone’s most basic rights to privacy. Regardless of whether piracy is in fact damaging these industries (which is highly contested but is the subject for another article), the measures being enacted to protect their interests are surely wildly inappropriate and out of proportion.


The use of encrypted VPN tunnels is a highly effective way to thwart attempts at mass surveillance by governments (often acting at the behest of powerful anti-piracy lobbies), as long as no logs are kept by the VPN provider. Because of this, as we have discussed at some length in our articles on net surveillance legislation in different countries, serious attempts have been made to force providers to keep logs.

The internet however is a global phenomenon, and many VPN providers are still able to operate (at least for now) ‘no logs’ services, which can be accessed from anywhere in the world. A common tactic by government and anti-piracy observers in response to this has been insinuate that all VPN users (and even more so all Tor users) are child pornographers, purveyors of drugs, copyright infringers, terrorists or other forms of criminal. After all, if you’re doing nothing wrong then, then you have nothing to hide, right? (and if you are hiding. then you must be doing something wrong…)

It is exactly this line of reasoning has allowed governments to enact legislation (and push for more) that treats all citizen’s, no matter their innocence, as if they were criminals.

Using VPN to resist unjust, immoral and disproportional invasion of our civil liberties

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing
Edmund Burke.

That the on-going wholesale attack on some of our most fundamental human rights and most cherished civil liberties is being spearheaded by the powerful corporate monopolies of the entrainment industry should set every free-thinking individual’s alarm bells ringing. These laws are affronts to every human being who cares about personal liberty, and does not believe that governments are composed of benign overseers of our collective well-being.

Although popular resistance has slowed down the adoption of some of the most heinous legislation (e.g. ACTA and CISPA), the power, wealth and unflinching determination of those who want it will almost certainly triumph in the end. Governments and corporations in other words, much like the ruling classes and the Church did with the printed word during the renascence, are making a power-grab for the internet. Unfortunately in this case they may well succeed, and thereby crush the most powerful and democratic tool for leaning, self-developed understanding and advancement that the ordinary human beings have ever had (at least since books became available to the masses).

VPN, as many people are discovering and hence its massive rise in popularity, is powerful tool that lets individuals take back control of internet in a way that is very difficult to monitor, censor or effectively ban (it is almost certain that attempts will be made to ban it in the future, as they are already in Iran and China, but hopeful by then new techniques, in the technological arms race to stay ahead of such measures, will have been developed).

The more people who use VPN, the less control governments and big business have so, on the tried and tested libertarian principle that it is everyone’s duty to defy unjust laws, be believe that the use of VPN is not only justifiable, but is increasingly becoming a moral imperative.

The plus side of all this is that, much like the spread of the printed word, the internet presents vast and as yet unimagined possibilities, the potential to propel humanity through a new Renascence towards a better destiny, one not controlled by greedy self-interested originations with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo at any cost, but a world were everyone has access to knowledge and the tools to make dreams become reality. The fight is on, it’s big, and the stakes could hardly be bigger… and our first line of defence is to all use VPN.

Douglas Crawford

I am a freelance writer, technology enthusiast, and lover of life who enjoys spinning words and sharing knowledge for a living. You can now follow me on Twitter - @douglasjcrawf.

2 responses to “The ethics of VPN…

  1. What do you think of the moral implications of file sharing services where ordinary users’s computers are being used by child pornographers/terrorists. Your article is interesting to me but it makes me wonder: could Tor or other p2p and/or vpn services take the problem into their own hands, and simply block traffic that tries to access these sites? Or, at the very least create a plugin that blocks access to these sites and prevents MY computer from being used as a p2p node for a pornographer or a terrorist. Do you know of any current projects that are attempting to do this? I am interested in p2p but I am wary that my computer will be used by one of the “peer” evildoers of the information technology world…

    1. Hi Zach,

      – With P2P filesharing using the BitTorrent protocol (which is what I assume you are talking about), ordinary users’ computers are not being used by child pornographers/terrorists. Files are only shared among everyone who is downloading or seeding that file.

      – VPN providers and individual Tor exit node volunteers could try to censor internet traffic an/or websites, but a) this is pretty much the opposite of what such services are designed for, and b) this would be dangerous for the VPN provider/ Tor node operator because if they start interfering with traffic that passes through their servers then they will start to become legally responsible for that traffic.

      – I think you misunderstand P2P. When you “download” a file via P2P, you are in reality sharing that file with everyone who is also “downloading it” (or have continued to seed the file after they have finished downloading). No files that you did not choose to download are stored on your computer.

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