VPN ban to protect copyright discriminatory, will drive users underground

As the Singapore government mulls over the role of VPNs in bypassing geo-blocks, any potential ban will unfairly penalise the use of such tools for security and privacy reasons and may drive content users to illegal downloads.

There has been much debate here since the Singapore government announced plans to review the country's copyright laws, specifically, whether this might lead to a ban on VPNs.

The Law Ministry and Intellectual Property office of Singapore (IPOS) this week released a consultation document to gather public feedback on proposed changes to the Copyright Act. Tweaks were necessary, the ministry said, to ensure local laws keep pace with technological developments "so as to support creativity and innovation". "This review seeks to ensure our copyright regime continues to provide an environment that benefits both creators and users," the ministry said.

While VPNs were not explicitly mentioned in the paper, concerns about a possible ban emerged after IPOS Chief Executive Daren Tang said there were "complications" regarding the use of such IT tools to bypass geo-blocks, which could infringe copyright.

VPNs currently aren't considered illegal, and are used by online users here to mask their location so they can access content from overseas that are not available or officially sold in the country, such as Netflix's US inventory and Amazon's Kindle e-books.

If the Singapore government is indeed considering a ban, it may compel frustrated consumers to seek alternative sources to access the content and these likely will not be legitimate sites. So instead of protecting the rights of content owners, the government will achieve the exact opposite.

More importantly, many businesses use VPNs for security reasons as do individuals who want to safeguard their personal security and privacy. Will a nationwide ban also apply here?

This, I believe, is unlikely since the government will not want to impede on corporate practices and create a regulatory environment that isn't business-friendly. If that's the case, employees will simply use their work account to access overseas content and we're back to square one.

The government then may decide to be specific about the use of VPNs, for example, by outlawing its application in accessing copyright works that are not licensed locally. However, since the data is encrypted, it will be difficult to determine the type of content that's passing through the VPN without triggering some kind of security or privacy red alert.

So a ban will be challenging to enforce. And when rules cannot be enforced, then it is as good as not having them.

Clearly, an outright ban on VPNs is not going to work and should not be the solution here. Instead, content owners have to realise their licensing models need to change and content distributors have to negotiate agreements that do not perpetuate the problem.

Sure, geo-based licensing may bring them more revenue, but the internet era has stripped physical boundaries and established a digital content distribution network that crosses territories, countries, and regions. Brick-and-mortar retailers learnt that with e-commerce, and I don't see my government stopping me from buying a brown collar for my dog on Amazon.com, which is available only in yellow at my local pet shop.

The difference here, too, is that the manufacturer of that dog collar doesn't insist on Amazon.com signing two separate contracts to sell and market its products in the US and Singapore.

If content owners and distributors persist in signing geo-based contracts, simply because that's how it has always been done, then they should bear the burden of enforcing the license agreement as well as its associated costs. This should not fall into the responsibility of the local governments.

Consumers aren't the problem here either. In fact, they obviously want to do the right thing and acquire content legally. It's a case of: "Take my money already, but how do I give it to you without having to jump through hoops?" Or, in this case, go through a tunnel.

On its part, Netflix has acknowledged equal global access is the way forward. Until then, perhaps the Singapore government should encourage the other market players such as pay TV operators to rethink their business model instead.