Zit Seng's Blog

A Singaporean's technology and lifestyle blog

Nothing Illicit, VPNs Are Just Fine

In news earlier this week we heard about the government’s review of the use of VPN technology over concerns of intellectual property infringements under the Copyright Act. For a country that wants to be a smart nation, its thinking can sometimes be quite antiquated. First they ban the Internet from civil servants, then now they’re considering to make VPNs illegal.

The Ministry of Law has not recommended an outcome on the use of VPNs. It is, instead, calling for public feedback. I am shocked that there was even a need to come to that. There is absolutely nothing wrong with VPNs.

If there’s anything wrong in connection with using a VPN, it’s more likely the causes that brought about the use of VPNs in the first place, those causes which the government thinks makes VPNs illegal, they are ones that are illegal.

A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, for those unfamiliar, is a private connection extending across a public network such as the Internet to some other distant location, enabling users to access that other distant location as if their computers were actually directly connected at that location. VPNs usually employ the use of encryption to secure that private connection which runs across the public network.

A common use for VPNs is for employees of an organisation to connect securely from their home to the organisation’s internal computer network.

VPNs, though, can be used for many other purposes. It is simply a tool, and creative users have applied it to solve a a variety of practical problems. Problems, for example, like geo-blocks, or geographically-based restrictions, where you are disallowed access simply because of where you are located. VPNs can help transport you virtually to some other location where access might be permitted, thus circumventing that geo-block.

Netflix, for example, was not available in Singapore until this year. Prior to this year, users in Singapore who wanted to subscribe to Netflix would use VPNs as one of the popular tools to circumvent the block, sending themselves virtually to the United States, so that they can subscribe to and stream Netflix content. Mind you, no one is stealing any service. These users are legitimately paying for Netflix.

Aside from outright geo-blocks, there are also geographically-differentiated pricing, or service levels, or service types. None of these make sense, honestly, since everything is delivered over the Internet. The restrictions are simply arbitrarily drawn geographical borders.

The problem is, you see, there are some people who think that circumventing geo-blocks is in fact illegal and should be disallowed. These people are often precisely those who put geo-blocks in place.

Let me explain why geo-blocks are simply illogical.

Many years ago, I bought a pair of Levi’s jeans from an outlet store in the United States for about US$20. I came back to Singapore, and found the same pair of jeans selling for about S$200 at the Levi’s boutique in Raffles City. That same pair of jeans, S$200 here, but US$20 on the other side of the world.

Sure, perhaps real estate costs are higher in Singapore. Maybe some other cost is higher in Singapore. But it is not unusual for businesses to price their products or services differently for reasons unrelated to cost. Levi’s jeans in the United States, for example, is “cheap”, but Singaporeans consider Levi’s premium goods. That’s good enough reason to sell the same pair of jeans here at a far higher price.

Airlines have been doing this since forever. The same flights you buy vary in price depending on where you buy them from, or which city you start your flight from. Go try compare some prices. Here, let me give you an example.

I use Jetstar, booking a return flight from Singapore to Melbourne leaving on 3 Oct 2016 and returning on 10 Oct. That would be JQ8 flying out and JQ7 returning. Fare total is S$717.12, inclusive of S$133.12 in fees and taxes, and S$76 for checked baggage. Suppose I invert the route, booking a return flight from Melbourne to Singapore, that would mean flying JQ7 on 3 Oct 2016 and JQ8 on 10 Oct. This time, my fare total is AUD$436 (S$448.89), inclusive of AUD$131.02 (S$134.89) in fees and taxes, and AUD$78 (S$80.31) for checked baggage.

It’s the same exact flight, on the same day of week, but just in different order. Starting the trip from Singapore will cost 60% more than had we started from Melbourne. You probably thought budget carriers sell fares with very low margins. Now, you know better.

We have been suckered by airlines, for a long time. Some people who travel very regularly between two destinations may get the luxury of booking return flights in the other direction, but for the most of us, there’s nothing much we can do. It’s not like we can go start our flight from the other side of the world when we’re not there. Airlines know it, and get away with it, because we can’t workaround their tactics.

It’s not the same buying that pair of Levi’s jeans though. If I happened to be in the United States, you know like when I’m there for holiday or business, I could pick up some shopping. In fact, some people travel for the primary purpose of shopping. It’s not aways about picking up a better deal. Sometimes, there are things you want to buy that just aren’t available in Singapore.

Is there anything illegal about travelling overseas to do our shopping? Of course, pay the applicable duties and taxes, and apart from items that are banned (you know, like chewing gum), there’s nothing wrong with bringing home your overseas shopping.

Businesses like freight forwarders make things even easier for us. Just shop online, and if your favourite retailer won’t ship to Singapore, then send your shopping to the freight forwarder instead, who’ll then send your stuff onward to you in Singapore. That’s what Borderlinx and Comgateway are doing, for forwarding parcels from the United States to Singapore. Our own SingPost has a service vPost which does just that too.

Do we agree that none of the above is illegal?

So in this new age of the Internet, there are services we can procure online, which are also delivered and experienced online. There’s nothing physical that needs to be shipped around. The problem is that the service provider has drawn up some silly restrictions that require you to be in some physical locality.

Can we fly ourselves to the United States to stream Netflix movies and TV shows? Of course we could. It would be silly though. Yes, Netflix is available in Singapore now, but the content catalogue isn’t completely the same, so the need to go to the United States may still be true.

Now, instead of travelling to the United States just to consume something online, what if you could transport yourself there virtually? Yes, so that’s one reason why people use VPNs. Some local Internet Service Providers even market services that will enable users to access these geo-blocked or geo-restricted content.

Why would you blame VPNs for this mess?

The problem is with mercenary businesses. Now, spare me the lecture on intellectual property rights, licensing complexities and what not. I understand, and I still think it comes down to mercenary, discriminatory, business.

These mess come about because businesses want to maximise revenue, maximise profits. It isn’t entirely wrong, but they’re doing so in discriminatory ways. If you can afford to pay more, basically, they want you to pay more. That’s at least one reason why geo-restrictions are in place. If airlines can be discriminatory in their fares, these companies want to do the same.

This is really unfair. Can you imagine a mobile phone shop quoting one price to locals who shop there, but a wholly different price to a foreigner, tourist, or someone who looks really loaded? Oh wait, that’s what some shops do. But we all agree that’s really absurd right? A phone is a phone. Why does it matter whether the customer is local or foreigner?

Can you imagine if Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle or Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle, of recent Michelin star fame, charged customers different prices depending on which district they resided?

It’s one thing to offer student discounts, or senior discounts, or even loyalty discounts,
but to charge premiums for some arbitrary reason is unfair. Some people may argue this is a matter of business strategy. Perhaps it is. It’s their business after all, and if consumers didn’t like it, they could go elsewhere.

But if smart consumers find smart ways to get around those silly strategies, please don’t cry foul, and worse, expect the government to fix the laws to protect them. Who started these discriminatory practices in the first place?

We don’t go about banning air travel because some people might bring their overseas shopping back to Singapore. Merchants aren’t so worried because it’s somewhat costly for individuals to travel for the purpose of getting better prices. We didn’t ban freight forwarders too. VPNs are a different ballgame, it’s too cheap and easy, so it becomes a serious threat to their businesses, particularly those who simply exist online and don’t ship anything physically. But you know what, VPNs make sense only because the business is online, and if it is online, it doesn’t cost them any different whether their customer is in the United States, in Singapore, or Timbuktu.

If businesses want to play their geographically-based discrimination game, then let customers play along with VPNs. If our government really wants to do anything, please go outlaw geographically-based discrimination.

I’ve not even begun to talk about all the other reasons to use VPNs, like circumventing hackers and thwarting malicious attacks. I don’t need to, because I guess that’s not what our government is interested in.

The United States is talking about crippling encryption and installing backdoors for reasons of dealing with terrorists and other serious crimes. Those are stupid reasons too, by the way. For us to want to review the use of VPN technology because they are used to circumvent geo-blocks, I wonder where the smartness will be in our smart nation vision.

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