VPN users experiencing accessibility problems, TRC says apps ‘not regulated’

(Photo: Unsplash)
(Photo: Unsplash)
AMMAN — VPNs (virtual private networks) are a popular and convenient way for internet users to access the web privately, but some users in Jordan have reported that their trusted VPNs are no longer working.اضافة اعلان

A software engineer explained to Jordan News that a VPN provider “owns a group of servers that constitute the network. These servers are usually distributed geographically. And you, as a client, connect to one of those servers to make all your messages encrypted. So no one can monitor your internet activities.”

He said that there are multiple reasons to use VPNs: to prevent “the internet service providers or the government” from observing your activity, and to provide “some protection from hackers, to watch/consume/visit websites that are blocked by the government, or to set up a secure connection with someone else.”

VPNs have long been permitted in Jordan, according to Jordan Open-Source Association’s Executive Director Issa Mahasneh. But after the tragedy at Al-Salt Hospital, he said, activists turned to a new social media platform, Clubhouse, to discuss what happened. The app was blocked in Jordan around March 15, he said in an interview with Jordan News.

But many Jordanians had VPNs, allowing them to easily circumvent the ban and access Clubhouse anyway. Mahasneh explained that VPNs became popular in Jordan after a popular mobile game, PUBG, was banned, prompting people to download VPNs to play the game.

“We can definitely be sure that some internet service providers (ISPs), on some services they’re providing, especially on 4G are blocking” VPNs, Mahasneh said.

Jordan News spoke to several internet users who confirmed that they have had problems accessing VPNs over the past few months. A search on Reddit’s Jordan subforum found that several users reported the problem and asked for workarounds.

In a comment sent to Jordan News, the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC) said that it is not clear which VPNs are being blocked or having problems in Jordan, but added that they do not regulate VPNs.

Blocking ‘not really legal’
Mahasneh explained that Article 58 of the Telecommunications Law dictates that ISPs are not allowed to block services for customers, except for very specific circumstances — like a customer not paying their bills. “Blocking a VPN is not really legal,” he said.

“We got different reports of developers and programmers, or people who are working online, that were affected by the blocking of VPNs,” said Mahasneh. He explained that though VPNs can be used to circumvent government measures, they can also be used to ensure secure communication — like between a developer based in Amman and the international company they work for. 

“In order to protect the communications online between our team members, we need some level of protection that only VPNs can provide,” he said. “We are pretty sure that specifically for VPNs, there are some economic impacts on people, people that were utilizing VPNs for their work.”

“We have contacted some of the VPN services that were blocked in Jordan, and they confirmed that they are receiving from Jordan different complaints from users, that they are not able to connect,” he added.

Why you might want to use a VPN
Mahasneh explained that VPNs have a variety of mundane purposes. Usually, he said, when you log into a specific website, like Facebook, your internet service provider can see that you’re using the website, even if they can’t read your private messages. With a VPN, your internet provider can no longer see what sites you’re visiting or even where you are based.

He detailed one well-known use case for VPNs: buying airline tickets. “If you want to buy airline tickets, you will definitely get different prices based on the location you’re visiting the website from,” he said. “A VPN allows you to anonymize your location, so you’ll get a better price.”

But in the Middle East, VPNs are more famous for allowing users to circumvent government restrictions on content and censorship.

“VPNs are widely utilized as a censorship prevention tool,” Mahasneh said. “Governments that tend to block the internet or specific services on the internet, they also plan to block these circumvention tools in order to not allow the internet users in those specific countries to open the blocked websites.”

However, banning VPNs tends to result in a cat-and-mouse game in which users then turn to circumvention tools that transcend that ban. “Any kind of action that authorities are taking for censoring the internet are mirrored by other measures users can utilize to circumvent censorship,” he said.

Mahasneh emphasized the importance of a free and open internet for all users, in Jordan and beyond. “We believe that keeping an open internet, without any kind of censorship, without any kind of alteration or destruction, is just the best for Jordan economically and socially,” he said.

“Any kind of limitation on the access to the internet is definitely against the human rights framework. Access to information and the ability for people to connect, to get information online, to express their opinions freely online, should be protected,” he added. “These are all constitutional rights in Jordan.”

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