IN-DEPTH: VPN Demand May Surge Because of Online Safety Law

As the government announces an increase in surveillance and internet restrictions more people could turn to privacy tools such as Virtual Private Networks.
IN-DEPTH: VPN Demand May Surge Because of Online Safety Law
A woman uses a computer keyboard in North Vancouver, B.C., on Dec. 19, 2012. (The Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward)
Owen Evans

Growing numbers of internet users could seek VPNs to secure an encrypted connection after the UK government passed legislation to police online spaces.

Following the news that the Online Safety Bill will become law, VPN companies told The Epoch Times it's hard to make any predictions, but when governments implement internet restrictions, VPN demands tend to "surge."

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network, a technology that allows users to establish a secure and encrypted connection over the internet. They effectively mask IP addresses and anonymise online presences, making it more difficult for websites, advertisers, and even government agencies to track one's activities.

They also can make it appear as if you're accessing the internet from a different location.

Touted by the government as a law that'll make the UK "the safest place in the world to be online," the Online Safety Bill will force social media platforms to proactively crack down on harmful content online.
To police it, the government has granted Ofcom new responsibilities and powers, with a wide range of compliance tools, fines, and sanctions, to become the regulator for online harm. Under the law, it must appoint a "committee on disinformation and misinformation."

But critics said the bill will "outlaw encryption in the UK" and make the country a "less free place," with free speech activists cautious about the major implications on free speech as it will incentivise companies to take down content.

Digital rights campaigners like Open Rights Group have warned that the law will "make us less secure, including the children and young people that the law is supposed to protect."

"The Online Safety Bill also poses a huge threat to freedom of expression with tech companies expected to decide what is and isn’t legal," it said.

"Automated moderation will censor content before it’s even been published, re-introducing prior restraint for the first time since the 1600s," it added.

'Less Free Place in the UK'

Last week, Matthew Lesh, head of public policy of the free market think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs told The Epoch Times that he thinks over time "we're going to become a less free place in the UK."

Mr. Lesh said there is now a "pretty strong incentive on the companies to remove more content."

"So people are going to see their posts, even potentially innocent posts and speech removed on a far greater scale," he added.

He also said that it "wouldn't surprise him" if the use of VPNs rose.

"The reason why VPNs will surge is if basically, UK users lose access to certain websites," he said.

'Privacy tools'

A spokesperson for Surfshark Media told The Epoch Times that it's "difficult to make any predictions, but it’s not uncommon for interest in VPNs to grow in countries where social media or messaging platforms become unavailable."

"However, we will need to wait and see how the situation unfolds in the UK and whether any popular platforms end up pulling out of the country," she added.

Laura Tyrylyte, head of public relations at Nord Security told The Epoch Times by email that "as a brand, it sees a tendency for the VPN demand to surge whenever a government announces an increase in surveillance, internet restrictions, or other types of constraints, people turn to privacy tools."

"Such spikes in demand for VPNs are not unusual. We saw similar spikes in different regions, for example, when the United States repealed net neutrality, or the UK passed the law dubbed 'The Snoopers’ Charter," she added.


Maxwell Marlow, director of Research, at the Adam Smith Institute, told The Epoch Times that his main concern was encryption, a problem which he said was the "consequence of politicians not understanding how encryption works."

"All I can see this law doing is what WhatsApp and Signal have said they will do, that they will leave the country," he said.

"They're just basically going outlaw encryption in the UK," he added.

"My favourite fact about this, of course, is that the entirety of the machinery of government functions on WhatsApp. So as soon as they leave, the government will just cease to function for a while, until they find another communication mechanism," he said.

On what the internet will look like under new Online Safety Bill laws, he said the "internet is going to become harder to regulate because people will start looking for other avenues in which to access the services."

"The one thing politicians never understand, no matter where you are in the world, is that consumers will act as consumers and access services they want to access regardless of whether or not the law is in place," he said.

Mr. Marlow noted when governments enact restrictions, society reacts by developing, for example, black markets, crypto and legal firms in London that help foreign oligarchs launder their money.

"The way I like to compare it is that consumer demand is like water. It will drip into any form and fill up any vessel that seeks to contain it until it overflows. The invisible hand is a force of nature for a reason," he said

"It's one of the it's one of the two laws of economics, the invisible hand and the law of unintended consequences. And this legislation is exactly the manifestation of those two," he said.

Increased Awareness

According to data published in Statista, there is increased awareness around VPNs, though it's not clear if it's from concerns regarding the Online Safety Bill.

A February 2023 survey in the UK found that nearly 12 percent of the respondents aged 16 years and older used a VPN daily. Meanwhile, over 35 percent said they had never used it, and another 16.63 percent said they had never heard of a VPN.

Statista said that the reason people used them was because of  "increased awareness of online privacy and security risks" and that they are "becoming more aware of the risks of online tracking, data breaches, and government surveillance. "

Graeme Batsman, the founder of the DataSecurityExpert site told The Epoch Times that how one uses a VPN depends on how social media firms are going to implement the new rules.

Under the bill, the biggest social media platforms must carry out risk assessments on the types of harms that could appear on their services and how they plan to address them, setting out how they will do this in their terms of service.

Ofcom will have the power to fine companies failing to comply with the laws up to 10 percent of their annual global turnover.

Mr. Batsman, who has worked in cyber security for two decades, said that if one uses a VPN that looks like it is in France or Germany but the account is already flagged as a UK jurisdiction, as a UK mobile phone number, the VPN "might not necessarily do it."

"It depends on how the social media firms are going to start taking content down depending on XYZ," he said.

"You could probably get around it by maybe creating a new Facebook, Twitter account using a VPN and not using a UK email, not using the UK number itself. And then depending on how big companies are going to figure out where you are, that might get around it," he added.

He also suggested that going on the “dark web,” part of the internet that isn’t visible to search engines that require the use of browsers like Tor could be problematic.

The Tor Browser works by concealing IP by routing data through a sequence of servers (nodes), with an exit node being the final server before reaching the destination site, ensuring anonymity.

"Also, if you access it from the dark web each time you go on through Tor mostly, but it would show a different exit node so your country would change many times a day, so that could potentially mess something up," he added.

Mr. Batsman added that VPNs are well-known and used in dictatorships in places such as Syria, Iran and Russia.

The Epoch Times contacted The Department for Science, Innovation and Technology for comment.

Owen Evans is a UK-based journalist covering a wide range of national stories, with a particular interest in civil liberties and free speech.
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