26% of all internet users rely on VPN services, and it is continually rising.
The use of VPNs or Virtual Private Networks has skyrocketed over the past few years.
A technology that was merely used to unblock geo-restricted contents has turned out to be the guardian angel for millions of people worldwide.
But VPNs have not always been this popular. However, with the growing number of internet censorship and incidents regarding the mass invasion of privacy unfolding, global VPN usage has spiked.
And nowhere is this new trend more apparent than in the US and the UK. In fact, in a survey conducted by Wombat Security, out of 1000 people in the UK, 44% said they used a VPN. This number was even higher in the US with stats showing 65% used VPNs on corporate and personal devices.
Just to give you a perspective of how the VPN industry has grown, according to MarketWatch, just in 2016, the VPN industry has generated $15 billion in revenue.
On that note, I’m going to present my findings of the VPN industry. Here’s what you’re going to find in my in-depth research article:
- VPN usage based on countries
- Reasons why the VPN industry is booming
- Are VPNs legal
- Popular VPN providers
Global VPN usage – impulsive purchase or an actual need
As I mentioned earlier, the use of VPNs has grown astronomically over the past few years.
But does it ever make you wonder, is the massive influx of VPNs just a product of impulsive buying behavior based on events and emotions?
Allow me to explain…
Take a look at the graph below. From 2010 all the way up to 2012, the global VPN usage graph is pretty consistent.
However, from 2013 onwards, the graph just goes berserk.
Although not conclusively, fear of mass surveillance and invasion of privacy has greatly influenced the surge in VPN use.
It’s no surprise after all humans do rely heavily on emotions when making decisions. According to Douglas Van Praet, the author of Unconscious Branding: How Neuroscience Can Empower (and Inspire) Marketing:
“The most startling truth is we don’t even think our way to logical solutions. We feel our way to reason. Emotions are the substrate, the base layer of neural circuitry underpinning even rational deliberation. Emotions don’t hinder decisions. They constitute the foundation on which they’re made!”
Simply put, purchase decisions are emotional, not practical. Similar to Sex sells theory, strong emotion like fear can be the reason behind VPNs popularity.
Now let’s take a look at VPN usage by countries…
VPN usage (US)
Again, it’s the same story, the graph of VPN usage in the US just keeps going up. Looking at the graph from 2010 to 2019, and there is a visible shift in trend.
VPN usage (UK)
The graph of VPN usage is even more drastic in the UK.
VPN usage (Australia)
VPN usage (Canada)
VPN usage is on the surge because
Although the impulsive adoption of VPNs is one side of the story, there are genuine reasons why people consider using VPNs.
For instance, stricter more rigorous anti-piracy policies have left people with no choice but to use VPNs. Aside from that, online surveillance by the 5 eyes, geo-blocked contents and a growing number of cyber-attacks are some of the reasons why people like you and I have started using VPNs.
Anti-Piracy Laws Giving Rise to VPNs
Understandably, VPNs are a nuisance for governments and copyright enforcers because they facilitate the circumventing of geo-blocked contents.
According to Professor Nicolas Suzor of the University of Technology, Queensland, “site blocking is basically like ‘whack-a-mole”. He further added that content blocking is more of a symbolic victory,” rather than a sustainable solution.
Even Google opposed the request to remove pirate domains by stating that “Unfortunately, whole-site removal is ineffective and can easily result in censorship of lawful material”.
Naturally, if some content is blocked or is too expensive to access, people look for much cheaper and effective ways to unblock it.
That being said, Matthew Deaner, chief executive Screen Producers Australia, thinks that VPN users that bypass geo-blocks should also be stopped.
The Australia government also seems to be thinking the same ways. According to Section 115a of Australia’s Copyright Act, copyright holders can force ISPs to prevent subscribers from accessing ‘pirate’ sites.
European Union’s Fight against Online Piracy
EU has been practicing anti-piracy laws for quite some time now. However, the region has proposed even stingier laws to eradicate piracy from the region.
According to the European Commission, “The Commission seeks to deprive commercial-scale IP infringers of the revenue flows that make their criminal activity lucrative – this is the so-called ‘follow the money’ approach which focuses on the ‘big fish’ rather than individuals,” [Source]
The commission also propped the use of blockchain technology to combat IP infringements in supply chains.
With the proposed amendments, the EU wants advertisers and payment services to cut their ties with pirate sites. In other words, cut their revenue stream. [Source]
In addition, the even controversial Article 17, take copyright infringement laws to another level. Article 17 formerly known as Article 13, enforces the use of upload filters that would help eradicate copyright infringement cases.
However, according to David Kaye, the UN special rapporteur, this law would “drive internet platforms toward monitoring and restriction of user-generated content even at the point of upload,”
US’s Crippling Anti-Piracy Laws
The United States of America also has some very harsh anti-piracy laws. It’s one of the reasons why VPN usage has drastically surged in the US.
The No Electronic Theft Act is meant to combat online piracy and the distribution of copyrighted material. Introduced in the 1990s, the law aims to discourage illegal downloading and uploading of digital files by large fines, and prison time.
Officially passed in 1997, the law made the distribution of songs, video games, software and movies a federal crime.
The Net Act is essentially two-fold. Firstly, the value of the downloaded or uploaded content must be at least $1,000. Such violation can be met with $100,000 fine and one year of prison time.
The second part is even more severe. If anyone downloads at least 10 copyright files in 180 day period and makes at least $2,500 in profit, that person can be fined $250,000 and up to five years of jail time.
The DMCA Act
The 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) criminalizes both production and distribution of methods that can circumvent the copyright protection measures known as digital rights management (DRM).
The Act obligates ISPs to take action against illegal content and content providers when notified of its presence by the copyright holders.
The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act
The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986 has been revised at least six times since its initial approval. The current Act is registered in the U.S. Code Title 18, Section 1030.
In addition to countering risks against federal government or assets, this law also addresses digital activities that affect business and commerce both inside and beyond state lines.
The United Kingdom ending digital piracy
The UK is also not far behind when it comes to tackling digital piracy. For instance, according to the Copyright, Designs and Patent Act 1988, anyone found guilty of copyright infringement or distribution of copyrighted content can be sentenced to 3 to 6 months in prison and or fined anywhere between £5,000 to £50,000.
Additionally, in order to combat illegal downloading, under the Digital Economy Act 2010, offenders have to deal with penalties ranging from slow internet connection to site blocking and even suspended accounts.
India’s Anti-Piracy Stance
Although Indian piracy laws are comparatively less strict when compared to the US and the UK, the fact that it even ceases to exist in such a chaotic and lawless country is more or less surprising.
Under the stated Indian copyright Act, 1957; copyright violators can face jail time anywhere between 6 months and a fine between Rs 50,000 and Rs 100,000.
However, there aren’t many cases that serve as evidence that anyone has faced punishments for copyright infringement.
Under such ineffective ruling, the best that copyright owners can do is either block URL distributing pirated content or send takedown notices.
That being said, the fear of potentially receiving fines does discourage people from downloading pirated content to some extent.
As I said earlier, due to crippling piracy laws, people have no choice but to use VPNs to hide their IP addresses and get past geo-restrictions.
Geo blocked streaming services, IPTVs & VPNs
VPNs and streaming services don’t go together. Their story is so complicated and so twisted; Netflix can make their own original show out of it.
Whether you’re aware of it or not, streaming service providers don’t offer the same content library across the world. You will notice the difference when you travel across borders.
Even though you might be still using the same subscription plan, you won’t be able to access a lot of popular shows.
For instance, BoJack Horseman, Black Panther, and other such shows are only available in the US. Naturally not being able to access such popular streaming services and shows, people use VPNs to spoof their location and unblock foreign Netflix libraries.
Around the time when streaming services started becoming popular in the mid-2008 and 2010, VPN services stared advertising specific geo unblocking features. That obviously wasn’t taken too well by the likes of Netflix, Hulu, and other such services.
In response to blocking VPNs, Netflix’s CEO Reed Hastings said, “The VPN thing is a small little asterisk compared to piracy.” He further added that “Piracy is really the problem around the world.” [Source]
Primarily due to geographical content licensing and piracy issues, streaming service providers started blocking VPN servers left and right. It is exactly why you see error messages like:
However, some VPNs actually do work with Netflix and other such services. Part of the reason why few selected VPNs are so damn popular.
In addition to regional blocks, another reason why people use VPN for streaming is because of price discrimination.
Yes, that’s right, because of how media licensing works, streaming service providers charge differently for the same subscription plan.
For instance, in the United States, the cost of Netflix per month is around $7.99; however, compare that to Denmark and the price jumps to $11.94. [Source]
I mean, why pay more when you can have it for comparatively less.
IPTV- illegal streaming using VPNs
IPTV stands for “internet protocol television. If it sounds complicated, let me tell you it’s not. If you’ve ever used Netflix, Hulu, BBC iPlayer and other VOD streaming services, then you, my friend have used IPTV.
But unlike legal IPTV services, there are tons of illegal IPTV streaming services that offer on-demand pirated content.
For instance, Kodi, which is one of the most popular streaming platforms, is known to use pirated sources like torrents to fuel its content library.
Since illegal IPTV services mostly don’t require subscription plans, content streaming is virtually free. That is obviously what makes Illegal IPTV services so popular among people looking to watch either geo-restricted content or save a few bucks here and there.
However, since streaming pirated content is obviously illegal, law enforcement authorities and copyright holders take strict actions to shut down such services.
For instance, in a recent case, a corporative pan-European police action took down an illegal IPTV network serving around half a million subscribers across Europe. [Source]
Back in 2017, the European Court of Justice and the anti-piracy group BREIN pressured dozens of vendors of copyright-infringing IPTV services to stop their illegal sales. The fine of 82,000 euros and 4 years imprisonment, has led 170 IPTV vendors to throw in the towel. [Source]
Hence it is exactly why IPTV users use VPNs to cloak their identity.
**I don’t condone piracy, it is illegal and could get you in a lot of trouble in some parts of the world**
VPNs & Cybersecurity issues
Cybersecurity is absolutely crucial for our online privacy in today’s digital world. I’m going to give it to you straight. Almost every website on the internet keeps track of what you do online.
Whether through cookies or Google Analytics, your privacy is like an open book for anyone looking to exploit it. While greedy digital marketers won’t do you much harm, Cybercriminals can use your sensitive data for all sorts of nasty stuff.
What’s worse, according to statistics, most companies have inadequate cybersecurity practices in place, making them vulnerable to data loss.
Here are just a few of the biggest cybersecurity breaches between 2016 and 2017.
- In 2016, 3 billion Yahoo accounts were hacked in one of the biggest breaches of all time.[Source]
- According to cybersecurity statistics published by Accenture in 2017, there are over 130 large-scale targeted breaches in the U.S. per year. That number is growing by 27 percent every year. [Source]
- According to Cisco, 31% of organizations have experienced cyber-attacks on their operational technology infrastructures. [Source]
- According to Symantec, in 2017, around 5.4 billion attacks by the WannaCry virus were blocked. [Source]
- In 2018, reports surfaced that showed Under Armor’s “My Fitness Pal” was hacked and it affected 150 million users. [Source]
- In 2016, according to reports published by Uber, hackers managed to stole information of over 57 million riders and drivers. [Source]
- In 2017, reports surfaced that showed 412 million user accounts were stolen from Friendfinder’s sites. [Source]
- In 2017, according to numerous sources, around 147.9 million consumers were affected by the infamous Equifax Breach. [Source]
But the most infamous case of breach of privacy surfaced in March 2018, when Facebook found itself in admits of the biggest privacy scandals of all time.
I’m talking about the infamous Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data hijacking scandal that harvested personal data of millions of Facebook users without their consent and used it for political purposes.
This incident was a major breakthrough in developing much more rigorous data protection laws. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act are the aftermaths of the privacy scandal that shocked the world.
Since events impact consumers buying behaviours, naturally when the Cambridge Analytica scandal surfaced, VPNs started becoming more and more popular, at least amongst the privacy-conscious folks.
Like I mentioned earlier, VPNs are powerful tools that can to some extent, hide and protect your online activities.
However, even VPNs can sometimes let you down. Take for example PureVPN. Although one of the most positively rated VPN on TrustPilot, PureVPN still gave away user data to the FBI despite claiming to be a no-log VPN service.
I’m talking about the Cyberstalking case of Ryan S. Lin, a 24-year-old individual who cyberstalked a female Victim and distributed her sensitive information to hundreds of people on the intent.
However, PureVPN was able to identify that their service was accessed by Lin from two IP addresses, one from his home address and other from where he worked.
Information that wasn’t supposed to log in the first place, helped the FBI pursue and apprehend the alleged stalker. [Source]
From that case alone, PureVPN and other VPN providers have since then revamped their logging policies after receiving major backlash from online privacy communities.
But PureVPN isn’t the only VPN that compromised user’s privacy. In fact, Facebook, one of the giants of the tech industry, used a VPN app dubbed “Facebook Research”, which gathered the mass amounts of personal data of participants and fed it back to Facebook’s social network for analysis.
As reported by TechCrunch, the Facebook Research app had nearly limitless access to participant’s devices.
Once installed, the app collected private messages, chat sessions, photos and videos, emails, browsing activity, and even data gathered by location-tracking apps. Considering that participants can be as young as 13, it is truly shocking.
All this valuable and sensitive information was gathered for only $20 a month plus some referral fees. [Source]
ISP/government monitoring: Important or evil?
Now I think we can all agree, governments, for the most part, do look out for the wellbeing of their citizens. Providing affordable healthcare, jobs, education, security and all that kind of stuff.
However, sometimes the very people we put in power to protect our wellbeing actually carryout some very shady stuff to exert dominance over us.
Take for example the NSA. Although tasked with protecting US citizens, the National Security Agency has been found involved in multiple invasion of privacy cases on the mass level.
When Edward Snowden blew the lid off of the NSA’s secret surveillance programs back in 2013, only then the extent of US’s true surveillance capabilities surfaced.
The US government in conjunction with telecommunication service providers like AT&T has been involved in the illegal tapping of communications records of millions of ordinary Americans since at least 2001.
According to EFF, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Mark Klein, a former AT&T technician, disclosed in 2006, that AT&T used fiber optic splitter to make copies of all emails, web browsing activities and other Internet traffic of their customers and provided it to the NSA.
This was later confirmed in 2013, when The Guardian and The Washington Post, released several documents revealing that the US government was, in fact, collecting phone metadata of all US customers under the cover of the Patriot Act without any probable cause or warrant.
Just to give you a perspective of how powerful the NSA is, even Diana, the Princess of Wales was under surveillance leading up to the day when she died on 31st August 1997.
According to The Guardian, The NSA later admitted that it, in fact, had files on Diana; however, according to The Observer, they never actively monitored her movements. [Source]
But the US isn’t the only black sheep in the system. In fact, collaborative global surveillance alliances that are part of 5, 9 and 14 eyes are also involved in unjustifiable surveillance of their own people.
In fact, from leaked Snowden documents, it was revealed that the Communications Security Establishment of Canada (CSEC) carried out mass surveillance on Canadian travellers at Canadian airports.
Are VPNs legal?
Yes and no, or should I say it depends on where you live and what you intend to do with it.
Even if it might be completely legal to use VPNs in your country, conducting digital piracy or getting involved in other shady cyber activities is still illegal.
That is probably why some countries like Russia and China have deemed VPNs illegal. Violators found using VPNs in the country can be either fined or can even face imprisonment in some cases.
While there are plenty of legitimate reasons to use VPNs, like for instance unblocking geo-restrictions, securing your device on a public Wi-Fi or even preventing government snoops from spying on you, some countries either completely block it, or deem it illegal.
Let’s take a look at some counties that prohibit the use of VPNs
Let’s start with China, one of the harshest regimes when it comes to online censorship.
China is on the road to creating a completely segregated internet network. China has already blocked around 10,000 domains since 2018. Websites like Facebook, Twitter, and even Google are blocked in mainland China.
However, besides just blocking foreign content, China is now also targeting VPN services. According to The Guardian, China will completely block access to the global internet in an attempt to maintain the oppressive power of the Communist party. [Source]
According to Bloomberg News, the Chinese government has ordered three major telecommunications companies (China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Telecom) to block access to virtual private networks.
Apple has already removed a bunch of VPN apps from the Apple App Store in order to comply with Chinese government policies and regulations. [Source]
The Chinese government uses deep packet inspection (DPI) to analyze and block all foreign content. China has just recently also started fining people for using VPNs.
By reinforcing a 20-year-old law, the Chinese government is issuing Rmb 1,000 or $145 fine to anyone bypassing the Great Firewall through the help of a VPN.
Although it might not sound much, however, considering that the fine is around one-fifth of the average monthly wage of people living in Guangdong province, it is crippling, to say the least. [Source]
Although some VPNs are allowed to operate in China, however, it is mandatory for VPN providers to comply with local laws and regulations. In other words, completely rendering the use of VPNs useless.
Russia is also particularly strict about using VPNs. After high profile cases like the rigging of the 2016’s presidential campaign surfaced, Russia has taken strict measures to heavily sanction the use of VPNs.
Primarily, there are two main legislations that govern the use of VPNs in Russia. Firstly, the “Yarovaya Law” which mandates VPN providers to register with the government and log online activities of its users.
More recently, in 2018, a new bill №195449-7 was passed by the Russian government on June 5th, 2018, that restricts companies, search engines and individuals from posting, sharing links or promoting VPNs.
Violators of the new law would face hefty fines. As per the bill, The Code of Administrative offences dictates that the Russian Federation will fine around $48-$80 for average citizens, while the VPN providers that don’t comply with local regulation can be fined around $800 to $4,850.
Worst of all, for search engines like Google, sharing any links related to VPNs can result in a fine of around $8000-$11300.
What does a free VPN mean?
As the name suggests, a free VPN is, well a free VPN. Many people, who want to start using VPNs, unfortunately, start with free VPNs.
I said “unfortunately”, because free VPNs sell your data and are essentially a money-making scam. Think about this way, how can a VPN service not charge you anything, when the cost of hosting VPN servers along with app development and support is so damn high.
The answer is simple. You, my friend, is the source of their revenue stream. As the popular saying goes,” if you’re not paying for it, you become the product”.
When you use any so-called free VPN service, you’re essentially selling your data without realizing it. Any company offering free VPNs collects your data without your consent and sells it to the highest bidder.
Aside from being terribly invasive, a free VPN is riddled with malware. According to a study by CSIRO, around 38% of free Android VPNs contained malware. What’s even worse, such free VPNs are highly rated and used by millions.
In addition to that, CSIRO analyzed 283 VPNs and discovered that 75% of all free VPN apps were embedded with tracking source code. These trackers collected user data, which is highly valuable for digital marketers. [Source]
Essentially, free VPNs don’t protect your privacy, they’re riddled with malware and they make money off of selling your data.
In comparison to using free VPNs, it’s way better to use a free trial of some reputable VPN provider, rather than compromising your privacy.
VPN is not limited to desktop, now there are dedicated mobile apps
One of the biggest misconceptions that people have about VPNs is that they can only be used on laptops or desktop computers. That is one question I always encounter on different forums.
The truth is, most VPN apps are designed to work across multiple platforms. Most VPN providers offer apps for desktops, mobile phone and a bunch of other platforms.
Since everything is moving towards mobile, there has been a massive spike in mobile VPN usage. Although desktop is still the most used platform for VPNs, mobile is quickly catching up.
In fact, based on VPN usage statistics provided by Statista, VPNs are mostly used on mobile devices now.
Down below I have attached a graph that shows VPN usage by device.
Since everyone carries their phones with them everywhere they go, it makes all the sense in the world to protect it with a VPN.
Although generally considered a headache reserved for celebrities, phone hacking is a legitimate threat for anyone owning a smartphone.
Popular VPN providers
Personally being in the VPN industry for years, I’ve come across hundreds of VPNs. I’ve tried and tested all of them, however, only a handful of VPNs truly have what it takes to protect your privacy.
Just a disclaimer, VPN is not something that could make you virtually invisible on the web. If you are going to use it for anything illegal, prepare yourself to face the consequences.
Anyways, like I was saying, here are the top 5 VPNs that I recommend…
ExpressVPN is personally one of the best VPNs I’ve tried. The provider is not only honest about their logging policies, which by the way they don’t log; they also clearly mention their jurisdiction of operation (British Virgin Island).
As far as servers are concerned, ExpressVPN offers a pretty large server park. They offer 3000+ servers in 160 locations and 94 countries.
While on the topic of servers, ExpressVPN also honestly mentions the use of a virtual server. In fact, they have a dedicated page where they clearly list all of their virtual server locations.
Security-wise they offer best in class encryption, kill switch, VPN tunneling, fast speeds and a bunch of other great features.
If you’re interested in ExpressVPN, I suggest you try out their risk-free 30-day free trial.
Another VPN I highly recommend is Surfshark. Being one of the cheapest in the industry, you just can’t go wrong with this service.
Surfshark also offers a rather large server park. With over 1040 servers in 50+ countries, their server coverage is rather impressive, to say the least. I say this because Surfshark is a relatively new VPN service.
Just like ExpressVPN, Surfshark also has a strict no-log policy. They don’t store any connection or usage logs.
Next up, one of the giants of the VPN industry, NordVPN. It is amongst one of the most popular VPNs on the planet.
One of the reasons why NordVPN is so popular is because it offers the most number of servers I have ever seen. As of now, NordVPN offers 5000+ servers in 60+ countries.
Aside from the massive server count, NordVPN offers Military-grade encryption, CyberSec, Double VPN and all the usual bells and whistles you’d expect from a premium VPN service.
Torguard is another very popular and powerful online privacy service provider. Instead of just offering VPNs, Torguard also offers Anonymous proxy and Anonymous email. Speaking of a proxy, you might be interested in this detailed comparison between VPN vs proxy.
Recommended by Forbes, The Guardian and a bunch of other notable sources, it is one reliable VPN service to get right now.
Torguard offers Zero log policy, 3000+ servers, powerful encryption/protocols and a bunch of amazing features that would be too long to list for this article. If you’re interested in Torguard, definitely try out their 7-day free trial.
The last VPN on my recommended list is Cyberghost. In terms of servers, Cyberghost is on par with the likes of NordVPN. Currently, the provider offers 5500 servers worldwide.
Other features include Automatic Kill Switch, fast speeds, DNS and IP Leak Protection, No Logs, powerful encryption, and the list goes on and on and on…
From features to their excellent customer support, everything about Cyberghost is topnotch.
So that wraps up my super informative and super detailed guide on VPNs. I hope you now have an idea of why VPN usage has drastically surged over the past few years.
If you think you’re safe without a VPN, just remind yourself what the NSA and the 5 eyes are capable of.