Battle of words over review of VPN access

Battle of words over review of VPN access
PHOTO: Reuters

A war of words has broken out between technologists and copyright holders following news that the local authorities are reviewing the legality of virtual private network (VPN) technology.

The contention centres on the use of VPNs by consumers in Singapore to access blocked content meant for overseas markets.

The Internet Society (Singapore), which promotes the use of the Internet, said that VPN is a critical technology for securing corporate access to information over the Web.

"We need to ensure that we do not throw the baby out with the bathwater," said Mr Bryan Tan, president of the non-profit organisation and also a lawyer from Pinsent Masons MPillay.

On Tuesday, the Ministry of Law called for public feedback, hoping to update the Copyright Act, which was last updated significantly in 2004.

It wants to know whether laws governing the circumvention of digital locks on copyrighted work need to be updated. These restrict access to or use of the content, and can be circumvented by technologies, including VPN.

The existing Copyright Act is silent on whether using VPN technology to access blocked content is legal, even though the law principally prohibits circumvention.

The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, which represents more than 1,000 producers and distributors of sound recordings, argued that VPN users should not be allowed to circumvent geographical blocks.

"Content is licensed at a different price for different regions due to different business conditions and issues like censorship," said Mr Ang Kwee Tiang, its regional director for Asia. "Moreover, VPN is also the gateway to unlicensed content from overseas."

Some technologists pointed to the need for old business models to be changed instead.

Straits Times reader John Hunter wrote in to say: "The idea that technology to protect people's information should be restricted in order to make it easier for huge companies to keep old business models in place should be ridiculed."

Mr Michael Tan, 45, a market observer and director of an IT company, said that copyright holders can already enforce their rights based on existing laws.

For instance, if video streaming service provider Netflix lacks the licence to provide certain content in Singapore, copyright holders can sue Netflix for selling unlicensed content to Singapore viewers.

"Why even consider banning VPN if remedies are available? To help save legal costs for copyright holders at huge public cost for Singapore?" said Mr Tan.

ViewQwest chief executive Vignesa Moorthy said that if piracy is a concern, lawmakers here can make downloading blocked pirated content a criminal offence - as is the case in India.

Earlier this month, Internet service providers in India warned subscribers that downloading content blocked by the Indian government could attract a three-year jail term.

This article was first published on August 26, 2016.
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