There’s no shortage of illegal activities being conducted through virtual private networks nowadays, but does that make VPNs themselves illegal? Even if you entertain that “what have you got to hide/fear” straw-man of an argument, it’s not hard to come up with numerous legitimate reasons for protecting your online privacy in this day and age.
But is the law on your side here? Are VPNs legal? From the perspective of stateside legislation, the answer is a solid “yes” with some unsurprising caveats. Namely, while VPNs are permitted by American law, using them obviously doesn’t legalize otherwise illegal acts like pirating music and games, despite making them more difficult to spot and, therefore, sanction.
Thank the Founding Fathers for VPNs
This reality wherein VPNs are legal in the U.S. and many other parts of the world isn’t hard to verify. As you might have guessed, virtually every major VPN provider, from Norton to NordVPN, already invested a plethora of man-hours into substantiating that state of affairs, much like innumerable privacy advocates such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
VPNs and other applications of cryptography tech are also regulated by a number of past court rulings, seeing how the U.S. legal system is of the common-law variety, meaning it’s rooted in judicial precedents.
The first such decision came in 1996 with Bernstein vs. United States, a landmark case that established computer code as speech, thus granting it the protection of the First Amendment. Speaking of constitutional changes, the Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments all establish various degrees of privacy protections that courts eventually extended to the digital age, as well.
No U.S. law ever limited the use of VPNs, and the Fourteenth Amendment essentially prevents the enforcement of any such state or federal legislation in the future with its so-called Due Process Clause.
Speaking from the standpoint of American legislators, outlawing VPNs based on claims their usage facilitates illegal acts like piracy and drug trafficking would be equivalent to nullifying the Second Amendment because private gun ownership facilitates illegal acts like murder and robbery.
In other words, it’s not going to happen because such a move would undermine the very freedoms the Founding Fathers sought to codify over two centuries ago.
Breaking the law with VPNs is still a very bad idea
The fact that legality doesn’t equal immunity stands repeating because your anonymity isn’t that… well, anonymous. Just because you can obfuscate your acts of breaking the law doesn’t mean you still won’t get caught.
The U.S. Supreme Court underlined that sentiment in early 2020 by allowing an amendment to the Rule 41 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, vesting judges with the authority to issue warrants for “remote electronic searches” – hacking, essentially. More importantly, it allowed them to issue such warrants even if their targets are outside of their federal jurisdiction.
What that means is that if you use a stateside VPN provider or one from a country likely to cooperate with the U.S. government to break the law, you’re still not only liable to prosecution but under a realistic threat of being charged if you’re so much as suspected of wrongdoing. All it takes is for some official to prove reasonable cause to a single judge.
“Great, so I can use VPNs for legitimate purposes wherever I go?”
Of course, and by that, we mean “of course not.”
While many today are fortunate to be part of the free world, not every internet user on the planet is within their rights to browse the World Wide Web through VPNs. Quite the contrary; around two billion people remain at the mercy of governments who either outlawed or severely inhibited that perfectly reasonable practice, according to 2019 data.
The same insight reveals that by far the largest reason for acting against tools of online anonymity is – being a despot. After all, oppression unavoidably leads to mutiny, regardless of whether you’re in charge of a ship or the second-largest economy on the planet by GDP.
Naturally, official rationales behind those VPN bans tend to be wrapped in a metric ton of false pretenses. Making matters extra complicated is the fact that most 21st-century autocratic governments tend to prefer crippling VPN providers by pressuring their domestic ISPs instead of outright making such services illegal… but that’s a topic for another day.
What you need to know right now is that if you’re a U.S. citizen traveling to e.g. China in 2020s, you don’t need to fear some Asian Gestapo squad knocking down your hotel room door and waterboarding you because you installed an Android VPN to attempt playing Pokemon GO while abroad.
Frankly, your only concern in that scenario should be getting your prefered VPN to work over there at all.
“Are VPNs Legal?” was written by Dominik Bosnjak, a long-time VPN-user-turned-advocate who spends more time scrutinizing VPN Providers on a daily basis than he’d like to admit. When he isn’t writing VPN Guides and covering general Tech News, he’s probably spending time with his dog, video games, or both. Fun fact: the Shih Tzu in question is the only remaining creature in Dominik’s life who hasn’t told him they’re sick of him talking about Best VPN practices and government-sponsored erosion of digital privacy which made using the Internet less convenient over the years. He occasionally dabbles in video editing, Wall Street memes, and demonstrating a remarkable lack of guitar-playing ability.
If you want more tidbit-sized rants about any of those things, you can find him on Twitter @dddominikk.