By Rohin Garg
On August 10, 2021, the permanent committee on home affairs reiterated its position on VPNs in its report 233 on ‘Actions taken by the government on the recommendations / observations contained in its report 230 on’ Atrocities and crimes against women and children ‘.
In report number 230, the committee had stated that VPNs allow their users to bypass security walls and allow criminals to retain a sense of anonymity, so these VPNs must be permanently blocked. The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) said that it could block such VPNs only after receiving a request and satisfying the reasons under section 69A of the Information Technology Act of 2020.
However, the standing committee found this answer to be incomplete, so in report 233, it asked the Home Office (MHA) to ask MeitY what action it had taken with regard to blocking VPNs. So where does that leave Indian VPN users?
To get started, it can be helpful to understand why VPNs are used and what services they provide. For example, VPNs are increasingly used by businesses and government agencies to protect confidential information online. Many organizations use local network VPNs not only to provide a secure channel for storing and sharing information, but also to provide remote access to network resources for their employees.
For these reasons, the use of VPNs for businesses has increased, especially due to the momentum of digitization induced by Covid-19: “Of those surveyed, almost 70% of employees said that their companies have expanded the use of VPN for companies with 29% of organizations using a VPN for the first time. “The industry response to media reports on the proposed VPN ban has illustrated these concerns, and companies say such a move would be ‘counterproductive’ as organizations employing work-from-home protocols have been using VPNs to work remotely.
These realities have also been recognized by the government, as seen in the measures taken to encourage work-from-home protocols in the IT sector: on November 5, 2020, the communications ministry announced new guidelines for other service providers. (OSP) in the IT industry, which allowed OSPs to use VPNs to integrate calling networks and sanctioned the use of private VPNs. These facts illustrate the need for VPNs for modern economic activity.
During Fiscal Year 21, 59% of Indian adults were victims of a cybercrime. The rise in cybercrime and online fraud has made data security important to people, especially when accessing public networks at airports or restaurants. As a result, many are turning to VPN to protect their information. In the first six months of 2021, India recorded 348.7 million VPN installations, a year-on-year growth of 671%.
It should be noted here that VPNs are not completely secure. Many private VPNs implement encryption protocols that are not impenetrable. Also, even if the implemented protocol is secure, private VPNs (especially many of the “free” VPNs) can still collect your information on their own. However, there are certain relatively secure options and users can also configure their own VPN networks to ensure greater security. In such a context, it is not surprising to see an increase in VPN use.
VPNs help secure digital rights under the Indian Constitution, especially for journalists, whistleblowers, and activists. While standard VPNs may not provide the level of security necessary to keep them safe, VPNs encrypted with AES or PGP can provide strong security coverage. The use of tools such as VPNs as privacy advancement technologies that often implement encryption protocols is directly framed in the protection of the fundamental right to privacy articulated by the Supreme Court in the Puttaswamy judgment.
Finally, there are an increasing number of cases where ISPs continue to discriminate against certain types of Internet content and block them with impunity. These cases conform to observations from a larger study published by the Center for Internet and Society published in January 2020; The research found that licensed ISP website block lists across India are largely inconsistent, suggesting that there is a broader pattern in which ISPs failing to comply with blocking orders or arbitrarily blocking sites. web without legal orders.
Since the communications department has yet to implement Trai’s recommendations to enforce net neutrality, VPNs are key in the fight for net neutrality as they allow users to bypass arbitrary blocking of websites by ISPs without any legal basis. As stated by MeitY, legal instruments for content blocking already exist under section 69A of the Information Technology Act for specific websites and domains.
With respect to requests for information from users, there are mechanisms under the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty processes, as well as provisions under the Code of Criminal Procedure that are often used by police departments. Therefore, the very need for such an extreme proposal must be questioned. In this regard, the MHA is expected to consult with criminologists, technologists, industry, and civil society organizations before implementing any prohibition that may unduly curb the digital rights of millions of indigenous people. Making the Internet a safer place for women and children is a paramount task in modern, digital India. However, the solution to these problems must not come at a disproportionate cost to individual freedom and privacy.
Policy Advisor (Regulation and Social Welfare), Internet Freedom Foundation