House panel’s plea to ban VPNs will severely hamper commerce
The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs has reportedly suggested that India ban virtual private networks (VPNs). The committee seems to have discovered in the course of its duties that VPNs might conceivably allow anonymous activity online, and has thus recommended that the Ministry of Home Affairs collaborate with the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology to develop a co-ordination mechanism to block VPNs. In making this recommendation, the standing committee has revealed the depth of ignorance that bedevils India’s parliamentarians when it comes to issues both technical and technological. The question of the right to avoid surveillance in a liberal democracy might be set aside by a security establishment — but it is inexplicable that a committee of parliamentarians, and one that is in fact led by the opposition Congress party, should wind up recommending even more repressive mechanisms and adding to the arsenal of the national security state.
If India banned VPNs, it would join the ranks of countries such as Russia, China, Belarus, Venezuela, Turkey, and the Gulf states — not one of which is a role model in terms of governance or freedom.
The proposal would also be economically disastrous. Data on the issue is hard to come by, but some studies have claimed that just over the pandemic period, users of VPNs in India have grown sevenfold. VPNs are essential to the proper functioning of many modern businesses, particularly in the high-value added services sectors. They enable branch offices to be properly plugged into corporate networks and, in the new age of remote working, allow for employees to conduct transactions and approvals with proper data security. It would be impossible, for example, for many stock market traders to work from home without VPNs. Many proprietorial trading platforms require the use of in-house VPNs to connect and make trades. The notion that VPNs are used by criminals rather than those who create value in the economy is deeply fallacious, and the committee should reconsider its suggestions.
The broader effect of any move against VPNs would be a chilling effect on Digital India. Attempts to block VPNs are not trivial efforts. Even the People’s Republic of China, with a vast and well-trained bureaucracy dedicated to maintaining the Great Firewall that fences off its internet from the world, can only block VPNs with low reliability. In effect, all servers with a high level of encrypted traffic wind up being blocked. Other countries with state capabilities even less than India’s that have tried banning VPNs have seen a big negative effect on overall telecom efficiency. Iran’s internet, for example, is notoriously slow thanks to attempts to inspect internet traffic for anything that might be going through a VPN. Fortunately, the government appears to have better sense than the parliamentarians. Over the past year, the Department of Telecommunications has successively liberalised the norms governing “other service providers” partly so service centres can properly integrate with international call and data networks using VPNs. This was expected to reduce costs and increase competitiveness at precisely the right time to fuel a recovery in the IT services sector. Hopefully the government will ignore voices like the Parliamentary standing committee and continue to protect the potential embedded in Digital India.