21 October, 2014

Tunneling Through the Internet - VPNs and IP Law

Today's Internet users are more savvy and capable than ever before, and many users' desires for "free" content often leads them to find ways through which to attain that content, even if it's potentially skirting the law using a variety of technological means. Although piracy by itself is a hot topic these days, and often misunderstood (the discussion of piracy and theft on this blog here), the discussion revolving around the subject matter can lead to hyperbolic statements or even the misunderstanding of technological means and their legitimate uses in light of online copyright infringement. One such technology is what are called "Virtual Private Networks", or VPNs, which allow you to create a secure connection through a network service to the public Internet at large, masking who you are and where you are through that service. These connections are also often encrypted and secured through a number of ways, which can be used for both legitimate and questionable uses. Even so, whether the use of VPNs is against the law is not exactly clear-cut, and merits some discussion.

Although sometimes stigmatized, much like in a recent statement by the BBC to the Australian government stating that: "...[suspicious] behavior may include the illegitimate use by Internet users of IP obfuscation tools [such as VPNs] in combination with high download volumes", VPNs do serve a legitimate and arguably useful function. Should an individual wish to mask their Internet traffic from potential government surveillance or the monitoring by any other third parties (irrespective of the nature of your activities online), VPNs handle this quite well. Such an example lies just with are friends in Australia, where new laws have been discussed giving certain bodies potentially free roam in the monitoring of Australians' Internet usage. The proposed law has flared up interests in such services, and one can argue that given such broad tools some level of obfuscation can be said to be reasonable, whether you infringe copyright or not online.

But at the heart of this lies the question of legality, and as said above, this is not wholly straightforward. VPNs enable you to view content which is often not available due to licensing issues beyond certain borders, of which a great example is Netflix, which's offerings vary quite drastically depending on where you are. As such you would not imagine, as a paying subscriber, that accessing said content could infringe any laws, especially since you are paying your dues. Yet those licensing agreements are there for a reason, and weaseling your way to see that content can be a moral and legal grey area.

Some networks are probably not worth accessing  
An argument as to the moral side of things was put forth by Simon Haupt, who argued that "[p]aying for the... service means your money goes to whoever holds the [local] rights for the shows on Netflix. If you're watching [for example] the U.S. service, the rights holders... aren't getting their fair share". This can be argued to be slightly misleading, and as proved by Michael Geist, is indeed disingenuous to an extent, as Netflix for example, pays the same amount for the shows it provides no matter how many times or where they are watched from. Although certain licensing issues can be argued, such as if a show is licensed exclusively to a certain company in country A, but people in that country watch it through Netflix from country B, which was not intended due to the exclusivity of that agreement. This could potentially deprive that party of the commercialization of that work, but is still a hard thing to argue, especially against the users themselves.

Under the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 section 296ZA, a company with an exclusive right to the copying or communication to the public of a work has the same rights of enforcement against a person who circumvents, or attempts to do so, any technological means through which said works are protected. Although, at least prima facie, it is quite hard to argue in terms of geo-blocking, one could potentially argue that VPNs and their use in the viewing of restricted content might infringe copyright through section 296ZA. This can be easily countered by the simple fact that it would only apply to the circumvention of exclusion through non-payment of a subscription fee for example, and not so much regional restrictions.

Similar provisions exist elsewhere in the common law as well. The Australian Copyright Act 1968 prescribes under section 116AN that the circumvention of protection measures infringes copyright, potentially including regional locking. The Australian position on whether regional locking is truly a 'technological measure' is still up in the air, but not an entirely impossible inclusion. In the US the old Computer Fraud and Abuse Act protects content from being accessed from non-authorized computers, potentially including geo-blocked content, although no case law has taken that notion on as of yet.

But as one can see the use of VPNs is a true pickle, and has no clear and easy answer as to its legality. Although mounting pressure is being put on the enforcement of regional restrictions on companies such as Netflix, this writer for one highly doubts it will be a legal battle worth waging unless there is a drastic change in the tides of copyright legislation. As for now we're all able to enjoy our forbidden fruit across the pond through services we enjoy and pay for, but be warned: you might experience restrictions on through the companies themselves eventually.

Source: Lawyers Weekly