Virtual private networks (VPNs) have many legitimate purposes. They're also used to cheekily circumvent geo-blocks on overseas sites like US Netflix - often against the express wishes of rights holders. Like most online technologies, government legislation is currently a bit vague on what is and isn't allowed. So is it legal to stream restricted content through a VPN? Let's find out.
In short; yes. There are no laws prohibiting the use of VPNs in Australia. Furthermore, deliberately bypassing geo-restrictions to access overseas content is not considered illegal in Australia. (At least, not yet.)
Here's the official stance of the Government as it appears on our current Prime Minister's website:
The Copyright Act does not make it illegal to use a VPN to access overseas content. While content providers often have in place international commercial arrangements to protect copyright in different countries or regions, which can result in ‘geoblocking’, circumventing this is not illegal under the Copyright Act.
As much as rights holders may wish otherwise, you cannot be penalised for joining restricted overseas services via VPN trickery instead of paying for the local service. (Sorry Foxtel.) Australian cloud legal service provider LawPath recently explained the legalities in greater detail:
The reasons for the ‘green light’ status for Aussies is that this is not an issue of copying, downloading or reproducing content. Rather, users are merely streaming content. Where the fine line is between streaming and downloading is still being debated. The argument is that when one is streaming, users are only caching the content and not producing a copy which would otherwise be illegal.
If you want to scrutinise this issue more closely there could be the potential for breaches of commercial contracts with users and their respective subscribers. However, this is minutely minor and is not worth taking legal action against those abusing the system. There is a review examining this issue more closely [but] it seems unlikely that the use of VPNs will become illegal in Australia.
With that said, dodging geo-blocks to access overseas content is a violation of the provider's terms of service. When you sign up to a service like Netflix, you are explicitly agreeing to adhere to their rules.
If you get caught, these companies are well within their rights to ban you from the service. Currently, Netflix's preferred method is to shut down access to VPNs rather than come after customers directly - and it's making life difficult for many Aussie subscribers.
Fortunately, there are some VPN services that have managed to stay one step ahead. Click here for an overview of what popular VPNs are doing to combat this issue.
Since it launched in 2015, the Australian version of Netflix has been adding a steady stream of content each month. (You can see what's coming in November here.) While the selection of movies and TV shows is getting better, it still pales in comparison to the US version due to national licencing deals. Here's how to get the whole US catalogue in Australia — without getting slugged by the exchange rate.
Did you just catch yourself wondering if something was legal or not? Let us know and we may be able to answer it in our next Is It Legal? feature.