To use VPN or not

By Charles Miller

When I wanted to place an order online with Wal-Mart, I tried to pull up its USA web site at but every time I tried that I was instantly redirected to its Mexican site at There was simply no way to access the US web site because Wal-Mart knew I was in Mexico. I then masked my location using a VPN in Florida to enter my order to be shipped to my brother in Texas. Even then Wal-Mart thought it knew where I was and offered “This item is in stock at Miami area stores.” This practice of web sites tracking your location is now ubiquitous.

A question I am frequently asked is how to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) that can hide your actual location. Most people inquiring about this are desirous of circumventing geo-restrictions that prevent their accessing copyrighted content that is restricted to prevent it being viewed by anyone in Mexico.

About this subject there are two points that everyone must consider: First, the owners of copyrighted content have every right under the law to control the distribution of their property. Second, you as an individual have absolutely no right to break their rules just because you want to. That being stated, people sometimes ask my advice as to the legality of breaking the rules.

Mitch Stoltz is a staff attorney at the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. He has stated it is unclear whether using a VPN connection to circumvent geo-restrictions is actually illegal. He goes on to say that while he does not see any violation of copyright laws, it is conceivable copyright owners could sue an individual user for breach of Terms of Service. In his view that is very unlikely because it would be incredibly bad PR. Quoting Mr. Stoltz again, “While there are differences among the courts about the use of masking IP addresses to gain access to a site, it is pretty well established that simply violating the Terms of Service alone is not sufficient to warrant a violation of the [US] Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.”

So, while individual users of VPNs are probably safe from legal action and/or criminal prosecution, the companies providing VPN services to their customers are another matter. If copyright holders wanted to cut off all the customers “illegally” streaming movies in San Miguel, rather than suing individual viewers, they could sue the VPN providers, forcing them to stop providing IP masking services to everyone using their service to stream movies.

This might already be happening, though verifiable information is lacking. Complaints from individuals having trouble accessing Hulu, NetFlix and other streaming services seem to be on the rise among my clients. At the same time, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) continues to push aggressively for enforcement of copyright restrictions by providers such as Hulu and Netflix.

A point that needs to be mentioned here is that geo-restrictions exist for a reason. In the case of the British Broadcasting Corporation the production of content and its online availability is intended for its domestic audience because it is financed by those who have paid for a TV license, an annual public tax in the United Kingdom. Few people living in Mexico pay any taxes to the Exchequer in the UK.

Those who use a VPN to circumvent the geo-restrictions in place on the BBC web site should ask themselves if it is morally right to do so. There is no obvious way for anyone outside the UK to contribute to the upkeep of the BBC web site, but someone who wants to play fairly could make a donation to one of the BBC charities.

Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant, a frequent visitor to San Miguel since 1981 and now practically a full-time resident. He may be contacted at 044-415-101-8528 or email FAQ8 (at)

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