Back in the mid-90s, Microsoft invented the Virtual Private Network, also known as the VPN. This breakthrough technology was developed so that remote employees could securely access their work network. Since then, VPN use has reached the consumer masses, allowing expats around the world to connect to a private network and access the web they know and love from back home.
But the benefits of a VPN go far beyond content access, extending into such philosophical issues as human rights and freedom of speech and expression. VPN technology has given a voice to millions. Here’s how.
How Does a VPN Work?
What is a VPN?
A VPN functions very much like it sounds. It allows you to set up a completely private, secure connection to another network, generally in another country. This enables you to browse the web as if you were in that country, while also creating an encrypted tunnel for your data so it can’t be intercepted by snoopers, hackers, and third parties.
Initially used as a way for employees to remotely and safely access their office network, consumer VPNs make the same benefits easily available to anyone, on any device.
Generally when you connect to a consumer VPN, you can select from a wide range of international servers and change your IP address — essentially a string of numbers that identifies your device’s location on the web.
When you connect to an international VPN server, your actual IP address is masked and one of the VPN’s IP addresses is what faces the world, mimicking an IP address of the country you’ve selected, and that’s what allows you to experience the web as if you were actually sitting in your location of choice.
The major benefits of a VPN are four-fold and include the ability to: bypass online geo-restrictions and access otherwise restricted content and sites; protect your personal data from hackers and snoopers over unsecured Public Wi-Fi networks; conceal your digital footprints from government agencies, advertisers, and website owners; and last but not least, avoid online price discrimination to save considerable money on flights, rental cars, and software subscriptions.
VPN usage became especially popular in 2013 after the well-known Snowden leaks. Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee, leaked classified NSA documents that revealed the agency’s extensive internet and phone surveillance.
For many of us, VPN benefits are undoubtedly invaluable. But for some, these benefits are essential — especially for citizens living in closed, highly censored societies.
Online Censorship Throughout the World
Over 65 countries around the world censor the Internet to some extent, and according to The Freedom House’s “Freedom on the Net” 2015 report, the level of Internet Freedom is steadily declining.
The Great Firewall of China
China is the most notorious example. Commonly known as the Great Firewall of China, China’s vast web of Internet censorship is among the most extensive in the world. The most popular and beloved social networks, including Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, YouTube, and Instagram, are completely blocked.
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In addition to social networks and social networking apps, the world’s leading search engine, Google, along with its many helpful utilities like Gmail, Google Maps, and Google Drive, is also unavailable. So is Duckduckgo, a search engine that doesn’t track your online activity.
But even if you’re on an approved search engine, many terms and keywords are still censored. For instance, spiritually-related topics like Falun Gong and of course, topics related to controversial political events such as Tiananmen Square are completely off limits.
Ironically, even some terms which could be potentially harmless like ‘jiang,’ which means river, are banned due to their association. Jiang is a common surname which happens to be tied to the rumours about the death of Jiang Zemin, former General Secretary of the Communist Party of China.
Along with social networks, popular search networks and specific search terms, international new sources, like the New York Times, and a number of photo and file sharing sites, like Dropbox and Flickr, are blocked as well. China’s Great Firewall is so restrictive that China’s Great Firewall inventor, Fang Binxing, was forced to use a VPN to bypass his very own creation when he gave a lecture on Internet safety.
Twitter Silenced in Turkey
But China is certainly not alone. In Turkey, apps and sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and YouTube have all been blocked at one point or another.
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has even gone so far as to say that he is “increasingly against the Internet every day.” In March of 2014, when discussing Facebook and YouTube to a rally of supporters, he stated: “We will wipe out all of these.”
Two weeks later, prior to local elections and following the leak of potentially incriminating audio recordings, Twitter was blocked for several hours. One week later, YouTube was blocked as well.
Then in April of 2015, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube were all blocked after photos of a prosecutor that was taken hostage and killed by militants began circulating on social media. The government demanded these networks remove these photos, and shortly after they complied, the sites went back online.
Most recently, social network outages occurred during both the Istanbul airport terror attack and military coup.
In the case of the airport attack, the Turkish government maintained the blocks were for “national security and public order.”
Mother Russia’s Rutnet
Russia is no friend of Internet freedom either. To more effectively censor, the country’s controversial blogging law requires bloggers with more than 3,000 readers to register with the authorities and publish content under their real names. In May of 2015, international sites and social networks, including Google, Twitter, and Facebook, all came close to being blocked for their refusal to hand over the names of bloggers and remove content the Russian General Attorney deemed to be “extremist.”
Prior to this, in April of 2014, Facebook, Gmail, and Skype came close to being banned due to the country’s “anti-terror” data snooping laws, which threatened to block the services unless they stored data on Russian soil.
The Roskomnadzor, the Russian government’s top Internet regulator, is very sensitive to several topics of choice including: political protest, profanity, drugs, suicide, “gay propaganda,” and extremism. Because of this, pages like Reddit, GitHub, and Wikipedia have all been temporarily blocked. Youtube has also been in hot water. The entire site was almost blocked temporarily after hosting unauthorized copies of local Russian TV shows.
VPN Access & Freedom of Expression for All
In the face of online censorship, VPNs have proven to be a powerful tool for providing invaluable freedom of expression.
Fighting for Democracy: Uganda 2016 Elections
In February of 2016, the Ugandan presidential and parliamentary elections took place. This was a highly anticipated election for many who hoped to end the oppressive 30 year run of 71-year-old president Gen Y. K. Museveni and his National Resistance Movement (NRM) party.
But when citizens took to the polls, they discovered that their access to social media services, including Facebook, Twitter, and Whatsapp, had been completely cut off.
According to Museveni, these were temporary measures to stop people from “creating trouble” and “telling lies.”
Left with no access, many Ugandans turned to VPNs. Over the course of the four-day ban, nearly 1.5 million citizens downloaded VPN software — 15 percent of the internet-using population.
With 77 percent of the population under 30 years old, Uganda is a country with the youngest population in the world, and so it’s no surprise that social media, and the lack thereof, played such a pivotal role in this election.
On social media, citizens were able to express their views regarding the corruption and unjust practices surrounding the election that included the deaths and arrests of innocent people, the use of tear gas, and the complete absence of ballot papers and boxes in certain locations. The hashtags #UgandaDecides and the satirical #MuseveniDecides began trending on Twitter.
Although Museveni was ultimately declared the winner, with just over 60 percent of the vote, young Ugandans were victorious in their own right. Their determination combined with VPN technology allowed them to bypass unjust censorship, speak out, and exercise their right to freedom of expression.
Protecting the Environment: Protests in Vietnam
On May 16th of this year, the Vietnam government shut down Facebook and Instagram as dissidents tried to protest an environmental disaster that caused millions of dead fish to wash up on shore.
Citizens believe the disaster was caused by the Vietnamese government and Taiwan’s Formosa plastics, specifically the wastewater with toxic discharge coming from the company’s steel plant. Meanwhile, Formosa denied wrongdoing and the Deputy Minister of the Environment and Natural Resources claimed the fish deaths were caused by toxic algae bloom or industrial waste.
In an effort to speak out and protest, hundreds of people poured out into the streets to protest in cities including Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh, Nha Trang, and more. They often used Facebook to organize the protests — hence the social media block.
Following suit, VPN providers experienced a surge in activity from Vietnamese users. One free proxy service, Hola, reported 200,000 Vietnamese users turning to their service over the course of one weekend.
For Vietnamese civilians, VPNs played a remarkable and pivotal role in their ability to speak out against environmental injustice and advocate on behalf of the natural world.
The Freedom to Communicate in Brazil
You know all those very useful calling apps you use to stay in touch with loved ones while you travel, or save on your phone bill? Well, you’d be surprised just how many countries censor and block them completely.
VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) apps, like Skype, Whatsapp, and Viber, are or have been blocked in numerous countries including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, UAE, Pakistan, Egypt, and even Brazil — a country considered to be much more open and more moderate when it comes to Internet freedom.
Whatsapp has already been blocked three times in the country. The latest block took place on July 19th, but fortunately lasted only several hours. One block, however, in early May, took place over the course of 72 hours. Judge Marcel Mai Montalvão of the Sergipe state ordered the block as pushback after demanding Whatsapp turn over chat records related to a drug investigation. Yet Whatsapp, which now offers end-to-end encryption for 100 percent of the messages on its service, maintained they don’t keep such data, nor would they be able to decrypt the messages even if they did.
The result was a ban that had an immense impact on the larger Brazilian public.
Whatsapp is hugely popular in Brazil. In a country of 200 million people, it is the second most used app with over 100 million users, many of whom had to turn to VPNs or other encryption apps, like Telegram, to continue their normal communications.
The Fight for Freedom of Expression: #UnblockTheWeb
Certain VPN providers, recognizing the power of their platforms, have stepped up to the plate to advocate, fight for, and offer freedom of expression and speech. SaferVPN is one of them.
“Shortly after we founded SaferVPN one of the first emails we received was from a mother from Azerbaijan, ” said Sagi Gidali, Co-Founder and CPO of SaferVPN. “Her son was murdered in the army. She expressed to us that without our service she wouldn’t have been able to fully access the web to tell his story.”
“Thanks to the VPN,” said Sagi, “she was able to bypass strict online censorship and express herself freely.”
This got the Co-founders of SaferVPN really thinking about the value of their service and how they could make a greater change. So, together with the human rights crowdsourcing platform Movements.org, they established #UnblockTheWeb, an initiative to offer free VPN service to activists and dissidents who need it most.
Most recently the partnership provided much needed online anonymity and freedom to a coalition of online bloggers writing on behalf of cultural freedom and secularism in Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, countless bloggers, atheists, and secular freethinkers have been the target of brutal attacks and murders by Islamic extremists. The need for such individuals to be able to speak out and express their views safely is absolutely essential.
“We realized we could offer much more than a premium service that allows expats to access their favorite streaming entertainment from back home — we could also serve the greater good with a service that has some really crucial benefits and value. Now, in the effort to further social justice and human rights, we see the very real impact of our technology.”
Want to join us in the fight for freedom of online expression? Get involved with the cause at Unblock The Web.
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