More people than ever are using VPNs when browsing the web. Countries have held different stances on the legality of VPNs. While many countries like the UK deem them legal to use, others have restricted or outright banned their use.
So why is it that more internet users are drawn to them? The answer is simple: privacy. Security fears over personal data is at the heart of VPN usage. Since GDPR regulation came into effect in the UK, it is clear how many websites have been harvesting individual’s personal data.
25% of internet users globally used a VPN in the past month, according to bestvpn.com.
This article will explore what exactly a VPN is, why people are using them, the pros and cons and the legal implications.
What is a VPN?
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. VPNs act as intermediary between a device and the internet. Much like a tunnel, your traffic goes through an encrypted private network to one of the servers owned by the VPN company.
When you connect to the world wide web, you do so through this server rather than your own IP address.
By doing this, the VPN itself acts a proxy to mask your IP, location, and generally provide a more anonymous way of using the internet.
There are a range of VPN providers offering their services along a variety of price points, generally in the range of £4 – £10 per month. While there are some free VPN services out there, it may be a risky move to use one if you are concerned about online privacy.
Lastly, you can even use access a VPN through a smartphone or tablet – it isn’t restricted to just your computer.
Are They Legal?
In the UK and across many parts of the world, VPNs are legal to use. In other countries, VPNs are strictly government controlled (China, Russia, Turkey) or outright banned (Belarus, North Korea, Iraq). If you are in doubt, it is best to check whether it is legal in your country before paying for such a service.
While VPNs themselves are legal, if you undertake illegal activities through the use of a VPN then that makes what you are doing illegal. This article does not endorse such behaviour.
If you are simply using a VPN service to protect your privacy on the web, then you are fine.
Please also note that this information is correct at the date of publication and may change in the future.
The Benefits of Using a VPN
People primarily use a VPN because they are concerned about privacy. But that isn’t the only reason to use a VPN.
By masking your location, these services can help you legally utilize this privacy in other ways.
For example, travel and holiday booking websites rely heavily on your data to offer certain deals and prices. Normally you may find that such deals websites will inflate their prices if you return to the website or even if you live in certain parts of the world.
As VPNs prevent these companies from accessing your information, it is possible to book flights and package holidays at cheaper prices. Therefore, the monthly cost of a VPN service is offset by such savings if you like to travel or holiday abroad.
For people living in countries where the internet is heavily censored, VPNs can allow access to blocked sites such as social media and search engines. However, using these services in restrictive countries does pose legal risks. It is advisable to not use a VPN in these countries if you are travelling abroad.
VPNs also encrypt your data. This means your information cannot be intercepted. If you are someone who likes to frequently use public Wi-Fi hotspots then this feature may be of interest to you.
In fact, if you are someone who regularly purchases items online or uses internet banking – adding an extra level of security to your bank details can only be a sensible thing. Sensitive information is often targeted by unscrupulous fraudsters on the internet.
As VPNs mask your location, some people use them to pay for country-specific streaming services. For example to access the US exclusive streaming service Hulu or to access a different countries’ version of Netflix. It is suggested that using a VPN to access geo-restricted streaming services is legal although discouraged by platforms like Netflix.
Disadvantages of Using a VPN
Firstly, there is the cost. Many VPNs charge a monthly fee between £4 – £10. For a good VPN, you may need to pay a price towards the latter end of that range. But there are exceptions.
This amount may not sound like a lot of money to some people. But with other popular monthly subscriptions like £10 for Spotify Premium or £8.99 for Netflix, your purse/wallet may be feeling a bit stretched.
It really is a case of what your priorities are and what your budget can afford.
Free VPN services do exist. However, they are not a great option if you are concerned about privacy.
There is an old saying that if you are not paying for a product/service, then you are the product. An example of this being Facebook – while the service is free, your data is harvested and passed on for advertising purposes.
Therefore by using a free VPN service it is unknown whether the company providing the service will keep your information safe and not pass it on to a third party. After all, what would the company be getting out of running the service for free in the first place?
There are also further disadvantages of using a VPN. Using a VPN can, in fact, slow down your internet connection. This is because it has to encrypt all of your activity online. Think of it as an extra step.
Your connection to a VPN can also potentially drop – revealing your real location and IP address. These services are not fail-safe. More websites are also trying to fight against the use of VPNs with blocking software.
Privacy and Your Online Data
Since GDPR regulation came into effect, you are likely inundated with pop-ups asking for your data every time you access a new website. As frustrating as it is, it really has shone a spotlight on how many websites want to use our data.
Even then, many of these websites collect your data and pass them on to third parties. So by interacting with websites or purchasing online, it really is unknown how many companies are getting access to your data.
Of course, all this data is collected for marketing purposes. E-commerce is big business. Social media and Digital Marketing is booming. Marketers want to gather as much information on customers to sell to the right people. Fortunately for companies, the internet makes this easy.
As an individual, you should care about your privacy on the web. Using a VPN service is one way to browse more privately on the internet.
If you are someone who wants to be more privacy-conscious there are also a few more things can you do. You could switch to a trustworthy browser such as Mozilla Firefox. Also, be cautious about any apps you download and consider whether the permissions are worth the features.
Use messaging apps with end to end encryption. Try not to overshare personal details on social media. Use secure passwords (including numbers, letters, symbols, and upper/lower case letters). There are many ways to be more privacy-conscious, but those are just a few.
The use of VPNs is growing in popularity. The internet plays a great part in our lives on a daily basis. Threats such as internet scammers and hackers make the security of our sensitive data an important issue.
For some internet users, VPNs can provide peace of mind that their personal data is less at risk when using the internet. There are both upsides and downsides to consider.
It is also important to do your research and find a reputable VPN provider suited to your budget and needs.