Anthony J. Pennings, PhD

WRITINGS ON DIGITAL ECONOMICS, ENERGY STRATEGIES, AND GLOBAL COMMUNICATIONS

Net Neutrality and the Use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs)

Posted on | November 26, 2023 | No Comments

Net neutrality regulations strive to treat VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) neutrally, meaning that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should not discriminate against or block the use of VPN services. As a regulatory principle, Net neutrality advocates for equal treatment of all data on the Internet, regardless of the type of content, application, or service. VPN is a technology that establishes an encrypted connection over the Internet by allowing users to access a private network remotely. This connection provides anonymity, privacy, and security but may also be used in sensitive activities, including bypassing geographical restrictions imposed by licensing agreements, ISPs, or regional authorities.

In this post, I investigate the complexities of VPNs and their implications for both content providers and ISPs. First, I describe how VPNs work. Then I explore how content service providers like video streaming platforms treat VPNs. Next, I do a similar analysis of different strategies used by ISPs when they want to hamper VPN use. Lastly, I return to the VPNs’ relationship to net neutrality.

VPNs are widely used for personal and business purposes to protect sensitive data and enable secure remote access to private networks. In many cases, ISPs and other carriers, as well as OTT (Over-the-Top) content providers, may attempt to block or restrict the use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). However, the extent to which VPNs are blocked can vary depending on the region, the specific ISP, and local regulations.

How does a VPN work?

A VPN works by creating a secure and encrypted connection between the user’s device and a VPN server. When a user contacts a VPN, they are authenticated, typically by entering a username and password, often automatically through VPN client software. Some VPNs may also use additional authentication methods, such as multi-factor authentication, for enhanced security. When the connection is authenticated, the communication between the user’s device (computer, smartphone, etc.) and the VPN server is encrypted for security.

The encrypted data moving between user and server is encapsulated with a process known as tunneling. This creates a private and protected pathway for data to travel between the user’s device and the VPN server. Various tunneling protocols, such as OpenVPN, L2TP/IPsec, or IKEv2/IPsec, are used to establish this secure connection. The VPN server then assigns the user’s device a new IP address, replacing the device’s original IP address. This is often a virtual IP address within a range managed by the VPN server.

All Internet traffic to the user’s device is then routed through the VPN server. This means that websites, services, and online resources such as a streaming service, perceive the user’s location as that of the VPN server rather than the user’s actual location. Users can access content that may be geo-restricted or censored in their physical location by connecting to a VPN server in a different geographic location. This allows them to appear as if they are accessing the Internet from the location of the VPN server.

Anti-VPN Technologies Used by Content Providers

VPNs become a net neutrality issue when they are targeted by either content providers or ISPs. Some content providers and streaming services may block access from known VPN IP addresses to enforce regional restrictions on their content. Streaming services negotiate licensing agreements with content providers to distribute content only in specific regions. Other concerns include copyright infringement by other content providers and the quality of service of traffic routed through multiple servers. Complicated data packet routes can cause latency or buffering issues, which degrade the streaming experience. Nevertheless, VPNs can circumvent this blocking by masking the user’s real IP address and making it appear as if they are connecting from a different location.

Content services employ various techniques to detect the use of VPNs and proxy servers. They maintain databases of IP addresses associated with VPNs and proxy servers and compare the user’s IP address against these databases to check for matches. If the detected IP address is on the list of known VPN servers, the streaming service may block access or display an error message.

Content providers such as video streaming services may also analyze user behavior to detect patterns indicative of VPN usage. For example, if a user rapidly connects from different geographical locations, it may raise suspicion and trigger additional checks to determine if a VPN is in use. VPN detection may involve checking for DNS (Domain Name System) leaks that reveals DNS requests or vulnerabilities in WebRTC (Web Real-Time Communication) protocols that gives real-time guarantees but can reveal client credentials. These leaks can expose the user’s actual IP address, allowing the content services to identify VPN usage.

Streaming services may decide to block entire IP ranges associated with data centers or hosting providers commonly used by VPN services. This approach helps prevent access from a broad range of VPN users sharing similar IP addresses. Streaming services regularly use geolocation services to determine the physical location of an IP address. If the detected location does not match the expected geographical area based on the user’s account information, it may trigger suspicion of VPN use.

VPN connections often exhibit different speed characteristics compared to regular links. Streaming services may analyze the connection speed and behavior to identify patterns associated with VPN usage. Lastly, some streaming services may employ captcha challenges or additional verification steps when they detect suspicious activity, such as rapid and frequent connection attempts from different locations. This targeting can inconvenience users but serves to identify and block VPN usage.

How ISPs treat VPNs

Net neutrality principles call for ISPs to treat all data packets on the Internet equally. It can prohibit ISPs from discriminating against specific online services, applications, or providers, including the data packets generated by VPN services. This norm means that ISPs should not block or throttle VPN traffic just because it is VPN traffic. VPN providers, like any other online service, should be able to reach users without facing unfair restrictions.

Nevertheless, ISPs may employ various techniques to block or throttle VPN traffic. These measures are often implemented for network management, compliance with regional regulations, or enforcing content restrictions. Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) is a technology that allows ISPs to inspect the content of data packets passing through their networks. By analyzing the characteristics of the traffic, including protocol headers and content payload, DPI can identify patterns associated with VPN traffic. ISPs may use DPI to detect and block specific VPN protocols or to throttle VPN traffic. Some advanced filtering technologies can detect and block VPN traffic. However, this approach is more common in regions with strict Internet censorship.

ISPs can block or restrict traffic on specific ports commonly associated with VPN protocols. For example, they might block traffic on ports used by OpenVPN (e.g., TCP port 1194 or UDP port 1194) or other well-known VPN protocols. By blocking these ports, ISPs aim to prevent establishing VPN connections. ISPs may also maintain lists of IP addresses associated with known VPN servers and block traffic to and from these addresses. This method targets specific VPN servers or services rather than attempting to identify VPN traffic based on its characteristics.

Some VPN protocols obfuscate or disguise their traffic, making it more challenging for ISPs to detect and block them. This subterfuge includes techniques like adding a layer of encryption or using obfuscated protocols that resemble regular HTTPS traffic. ISPs may also analyze traffic patterns and behaviors to identify characteristics associated with VPN usage. For example, rapid and frequent connection attempts from different locations might trigger suspicion and lead to traffic restrictions. VPNs can circumvent this blocking by masking the user’s actual IP address and making it appear as if they are connecting from a different location.

DNS filtering blocks access to specific domain names associated with VPN services. This method aims to prevent users from resolving the domain names of VPN servers, making it more difficult for them to establish connections. ISPs may implement filtering at the application layer to identify and block VPN traffic based on the behavior and characteristics of specific VPN applications. Instead of outright blocking VPN traffic, some ISPs may employ bandwidth throttling to reduce the speed of VPN connections. This slowing can make VPN usage less practical or effective for users, especially when attempting to stream high-quality video or engage in other bandwidth-intensive activities.

The effectiveness of these methods can vary, and users often find workarounds to bypass VPN restrictions. VPN providers may also respond by developing new techniques to evade detection. The cat-and-mouse game between VPN providers and ISPs is ongoing, with each side adapting its strategies to stay ahead. Users who encounter VPN restrictions may explore alternative VPN protocols, use obfuscation features, or consider other means to maintain privacy and access unrestricted Internet content.

Net neutrality aims to prevent anti-competitive practices by ISPs. While some telecom entities block VPNs for legitimate reasons, such as maintaining network integrity or complying with local regulations, their actions can also violate user privacy and restrict the free flow of information. If ISPs were to block or throttle VPN traffic selectively, it could impact competition by favoring certain online services over others. This interference could be particularly concerning if ISPs were to prioritize their own VPN services over those provided by third-party VPN providers. Advocates for net neutrality argue that it is crucial for maintaining a level playing field on the Internet, fostering competition, innovation, and the free flow of information.

However, the specific regulations and enforcement mechanisms related to net neutrality can differ, and debates on this topic continue in various jurisdictions. In some countries, governments or ISPs may implement restrictions on the use of VPNs as part of broader Internet censorship efforts. These restrictions can be aimed at controlling access to certain websites, services, or content deemed inappropriate or against local laws. While net neutrality principles provide a foundation for treating VPNs fairly, the actual implementation and regulatory landscape can vary by country. Some regions have specific regulations that address net neutrality, while others may not. Additionally, the status of net neutrality can change based on regulatory decisions and legislative developments.

Citation APA (7th Edition)

Pennings, A.J. (2023, Nov 25). Net Neutrality and the Use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). apennings.com https://apennings.com/telecom-policy/net-neutrality-and-the-use-of-virtual-private-networks-vpns/

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AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is a Professor at the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea teaching broadband policy and ICT for sustainable development. From 2002-2012 he was on the faculty of New York University where he taught digital economics and information systems management. He also taught in the Digital Media MBA at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, where he lives when not in South Korea.

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    Professor at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea since 2016. Moved to Austin, Texas in August 2012 to join the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University. Spent the previous decade on the faculty at New York University teaching and researching information systems, digital economics, and strategic communications.

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