The Singaporean Government has released a consultation paper this week, and one of the questions it is considering is whether they should ban VPN technology.
The paper has been released by the Law Ministry and Intellectual Property office of Singapore (IPOS) and the consultation period will last for two months. It is broadly considering changes to the country’s copyright laws. And within that, they are considering the issue of technology which allows users to circumvent geo-restriction.
Given that Copyright Laws in Singapore were amended as recently as 2014, some people are already asking why the Government feels the need to take a look again. For their part, the Ministry said in a statement released alongside the consultation paper that “Copyright law must keep pace with modern developments so as to support creativity and innovation.”
Why Consult Now?
Singapore’s Senior Minister of State for Law and Finance, Indranee Rajah, has suggested that changes are needed to ensure that creators of content are getting “practical protection” for it, while users can gain “reasonable and easier access” to it.
In an article on the matter in the local Straits Times newspaper, Daren Tang, who is Chief Executive of the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore (Ipos) noted that VPNs do create “some complications” when it comes to copyright laws.
But the recently amended Copyright Laws still make no mention of VPNs whatsoever, and the technology remains legal in Singapore. And the fact that there is no explicit recommendation on the matter made by the Singaporean Government in the paper, suggests that they are still yet to make a firm decision on what steps to take.
VPNs are popular in Singapore, with around a quarter of all internet users thought to employ one. Accessing overseas content which is unavailable to users in Singapore is just one of the common users of the technology, with US Netflix being a particularly popular source.
Would a ban work?
Legal and IP experts in Singapore seem to be agreed that the proposals create a dilemma for the Government. It is acknowledged that the use of VPNs is in the interests of consumers for the additional online privacy and security they bring.
But the question of whether being able to get around geo-restrictions using the technology is in breach of local Copyright Law is complex.
Other have noted how hard it would be to enforce a ban on VPNs should that decision be reached. The Government would be forced to identify individual IP Addresses linked to VPNs and then block them individually.
As Netflix has realized during its recent crackdown, this is a time and resource-intensive challenge. It is also essentially a game of cat and mouse, as VPN providers can and do change IP Addresses regularly.
The Government is keen for copyright holders and small businesses to have their say in the consultation. But no doubt privacy campaigners and VPN users will also be keen to highlight the myriad of positive benefits to be gained by using a VPN.
An outright ban will deprive Singaporean people of a vital online security and privacy tool on the basis of just one applicable use it can be put to. Far from everyone using a VPN to evade geo-restriction and to punish everyone for the actions of a few seems excessive; especially as it is far from clear whether that action actually constitutes a criminal offence in Singapore.
It will not be until towards the end of the year that the outcome of the consultation and the steps the Government plans to take are revealed. Until then, VPNs will remain popular in Singapore, and users will be keen to get a message to their Government that an outright ban would be a backward step for Singapore.