There’s an age-old question when it comes to what you do on the Internet. Even if you use a popular VPN (Virtual Private Network) like ExpressVPN. Even if you are doing nothing wrong and browsing for collectible stamps all day. Even if you are just protecting your own privacy.
The question everyone seems to ask is: Is using a VPN even legal?
And as with most things in life, the answer is: It depends.
Mostly, the debate centers on three distinct areas. First, there are legalities around using any such service in certain countries, like using a VPN in China. Second, there are also some legal issues related to what you are transmitting with a VPN.
And third, there are questions about legal ramifications for the software you use versus what you transmit. All three are worth exploring, although the short answer is that ExpressVPN and other clients are perfectly legal to use in most locations. What you transmit, on the other hand, can be totally illegal.
Where you use it
ExpressVPN is an app you can install on your phone or computer that is remarkably easy to use. There are complexities in how it works and what is happening technically in terms of the encryption and tunneling that occurs, but for the end-user there are only a few settings to configure.
A VPN “just works” in the background on a phone, protecting your Internet visits, downloads, and activities. You can think of the VPN as a car on a highway. The car itself is perfectly legal, but what you transport in the car may be a bit more questionable.
However, even the car is illegal in some countries. Experts differ on the vagaries of how this works and how the laws in foreign countries apply to non-citizens, but it’s safe to say that if a VPN is illegal in a country like China it is better to avoid using one. Some have argued that if your “source” country in ExpressVPN is a legal country you are fine.
The problem is that you may not know for sure. If a VPN is banned in a country you are visiting, you are better off using the free and open Internet that is available. The reason is that the ISP you are connecting to does know your IP address at all times and can see the bandwidth you are using.
If you download dozens of torrents in a day, it will create a red flag. The ISP might not know you are using a VPN, but it can certainly tell you are downloading many files.
The interesting issue here is that the actual client is not the problem. Installing the client on your laptop or phone may not be illegal, it is the actual encryption and usage that might be the problem.
Again, laws vary by country and it is hard to predict what is legal or not. If there is a ban on a VPN, it is far safer to uninstall the client and not use it.
What you are transmitting
Apart from any ban on using a VPN, another issue to think about is whether you are transmitting illegal files, visiting illegal sites, or engaging in illegal activity online. As far as the legality of using ExpressVPN, this is where things get a bit thorny.
Using an app is not the illegal part if it is acceptable to use a VPN in the first place (such as using one in the United States). If you are transmitting illegal movies using a VPN, though, it is still illegal - it doesn’t matter if you are protected or not.
You might think there are instances when that is not true -- what if you can’t be caught doing the transmitting? What if you think you might have the legal right to download torrent files of Hollywood films in principle? What if you have read online that it is legal to transmit the files in some cases, such as if you own the DVD at home? None of that matters.
What matters is whether the transmission itself is illegal. Back to the car example. If you use ExpressVPN to download illegal software, for example, then the car (in this case, the VPN) is merely the vehicle you are using -- your payload in the car is the problem.
That’s why ExpressVPN likely could not be held liable for illegal transmissions - it is the act of doing the downloading and transmission that’s the problem for authorities and copyright holders.
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Which apps you use
However, there is one final note about the apps you use. ExpressVPN does protect your Internet visits and downloads. It is safe to use for legal activity. Owning it and running it on your laptop is not illegal. If you visit a foreign country, it is likely not illegal to have it installed.
That’s the good news. If you are at all concerned that running a VPN could be illegal, it is better to remove it and not use it. If you are tempted to download illegal software or movies or engage in criminal conduct online in the hopes that a VPN client can protect you, it is better not to use the app.
There are so many legal issues involved, and if a copyright holder or the authorities decide to press charges or investigate you, there may be no defense.
While ExpressVPN is perfectly legal, using it for illegal activity can only lead to problems eventually. This is somewhat similar to how the companies that distribute links for copyrighted material have been under fire in recent years.
It’s a valid argument that they are not transmitting the links or retaining any material on a server. And yet -- they seem to be constant targets for legal threats and accusations, and many of them do not last long.
It is better to stay legal - with a legal VPN - than to risk anything that could be perceived as illegal, despite how you feel about the software you use and what you do online.