VPN use and the controversies surrounding it

Bryan Kaye Senfuma Feb. 11, 2021

VPNs enable users to have online privacy and anonymity by creating a private network from a public internet connection. Especially during the recent internet shutdown in the context of the elections, they played a major role and were discussed controversially.

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VPN - What is it and what can we use it for?

VPN is an abbreviation for “Virtual Private Network”. A VPN enables the user to have online privacy and anonymity by creating a private network from a public internet connection. This software therefore masks the user’s IP address when activated hence making the user’s online activities virtually untraceable. For starters, an IP address is a unique address that identifies a device on the internet. IP is an abbreviation for “Internet Protocol” which can be understood as a set of rules governing the format of data sent through the internet. Activating a VPN also establishes a secure and encrypted connection to provide privacy.

The use of VPN among internet users in Uganda was first accelerated when the government blocked social media in the general elections of 2016 and its prominence and usage became normalized when the government started taxing the use of social media in July 2018. VPN allows a user to connect his or her device to a private network, creating an encrypted connection that masks the user’s IP address to securely share data and surf the internet while protecting the user’s identity online.

VPN as a circumvention tool

With the blocking of social media, a VPN connection establishes an encrypted tunnel between the user and their servers. This therefore means that when a user connected to a VPN makes a request to access a given social media site , the request first goes to the VPN server through the tunnel and is then forwarded to the requested site or the URL. Traffic from a VPN connection appears to be heading for the VPN server and not the actual sites the user wants to access hence it cannot be blocked by the filters or black lists. Besides getting access to blocked sites through a VPN connection, surfing the web or transacting on an unsecured Wi-Fi network can be a potential threat - you could be exposing your private information and browsing habits. Hence there’s a need for a VPN connection, if you are concerned about your online security and privacy. This is important because data transmitted during your connections to unsecured Wi-Fi networks could be vulnerable to eavesdropping by other persons using the same network.

Even if the block of social media which continued since the general elections on January 14th has recently been lifted, it’s still important to know what one should look out for in VPN services as the VPN market has a lot of options. A good VPN should be able to mask your IP address and add an extra layer of security to your connection. Further considerations one should make when selecting which VPN to use include; a VPN that respects the user’s privacy; in most instances what informs one’s use of VPN is protection of one’s privacy therefore the VPN should respect your privacy and should have a “no-log” policy which means they don’t track or log your online behavior and activity.

Considerations to make in choosing which VPN to use

The VPN you choose should also run on the most current protocols that provides stronger security. The recommended protocol is OpenVPN which is an open-source software that supports most operating systems. OpenVPN is believed to be one of the safest VPN protocols since it provides 256 - bit encryption and high - end ciphers. This therefore means that using OpenVPN guarantees users improved security, privacy, and anonymity with your Internet Service Provider and any other party that may want to spy on your data.

Over time, most of the internet users in Uganda use and continue to use free VPNs. It's important to note that in most cases where an online service is free, the user becomes the product hence you should expect frequent advertisements and sometimes having your personal data collected and sold to third parties. A free VPN should always sound an alarm because VPNs cost money to run and maintain unless the VPN service provider has an adequate supply of advertisement revenue.

Is it legal to use a VPN?

As Ugandans continue to use VPNs to access social media and other blocked sites, government officials have come out to state the use of VPN is illegal and anyone found using it will be held liable for a crime that is not even under our laws. Ironically Mr. Peter Ogwang, the State Minister for ICT and National Guidance, tweeted warning social media users that they would be arrested if they continue accessing social media using VPN and surprising he must have tweeted when he was also connected to a VPN. Although the minister has since deleted his tweet, the story was reported in Daily Monitor one of the leading newspapers in the country. It should be understood that the use of VPN is not illegal and there is no provision of the law that bars the use of VPN in Uganda. It’s important to note that the Excise Duty (Amendment) Act 2018 provides that “Over the top services” means the transmission or receipt of voice or messages over the internet protocol network and includes access to virtual private networks.

Therefore if “over the top services” include access to virtual private networks then the government cannot be taxing an illegality. It's important to note that the use of VPN in Uganda is not illegal, however using VPN to commit cybercrimes is illegal and can get you prosecuted under Uganda’s cyber law.