Two US senators have filed the SMART Copyright Act of 2022 on behalf of the Copyright Office to add more mandatory copyright protection measures to the DMCA. One of the Bill’s requests is to add VPN detection tools that can “fight geo-piracy”. Interestingly, this request is the result of a suggestion from a VPN detection company.
If VPN detection tools are made mandatory, websites and online platforms will have to use VPN detection services to see if their visitors are using a VPN. Those visitors will then likely be barred from visiting websites.
A VPN Detection Company Stakes Its Claim
A company called GeoComply wrote to the Copyright Office advising that VPN detection tools can be valuable in combating copyright infringement. The agency was already considering introducing other mandatory designated technical measures (DTMs) to websites.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA) currently provides the option for websites to adopt STMs. These measures are similar to DTMs, but require a general consensus among online platforms and services. The Copyright Office introduced STMs nearly 20 years ago, but hasn’t been able to reach a consensus since.
One of the Bill’s proposed DTMs includes upload filters. It would force websites to use content monitoring services designated by the Copyright Office to remove content from their platforms. The EU tried a similar approach when it drafted its new Copyright Directive, but it received backlash and was left out of the final draft.
At the behest of GeoComply, the Copyright Office has added VPN detection tools to the Bill’s list of requirements.
Most websites and platforms have implemented their own copyright detection and removal features. If this Bill passes, online platforms will have to review their procedures and adopt the various DTMs it outlines. Overhauling their content management systems may cost a lot of money.
The bill could also increase monthly fees for online platforms, as websites might have to use the filtering tools the Copyright Office recommends. That includes VPN detection tools like those supplied by… GeoComply. At the end of the day, VPN detection companies would receive a major income boost from websites and platforms that would be forced to use their services.
What Do VPN Detection Tools Do?
Some online platforms, like streaming services, already use VPN detection tools to get users to adhere to their geo-blocks. Currently, many of these tools are likely internally-developed systems. If the SMART Copyright Act passes, all platforms will be legally required to use a third-party VPN detection tool like GeoComply, or face financial penalties.
VPN detection tools work in different ways. Many VPN detection tools have large databases filled with known VPN IP addresses that get updated regularly. It’s unclear how accurate these databases really are or how these services gain access to that information. If someone’s IP address matches one on the list, it will automatically be blocked from accessing the website.
Some platforms, like Netflix, detect when multiple users access the service from the same IP address and then go on to flag that as a VPN IP. Other detection tools use packet capture to see if a device is sending all of its traffic to a single IP address, which can indicate VPN use.
Giving the Copyright Office Unprecedented Power
The SMART Copyright Act uses obscure language and legal definitions to refer to virtual private networks, but it does specifically reference them.
The Bill isn’t as ambiguous about its intentions to give the Copyright Office extensive power over websites that host user-generated and other uploaded content. The Copyright Office would be able monitor content uploads on these websites and presumably gain unprecedented access to their inner workings.
SMART Copyright Act would give the Copyright Office full control over related rulings and disputes, with no oversight to guarantee fair practice. On top of that, the integration of DTMs and management of upload filters requires a high level of technical expertise that the Copyright Office fails to demonstrate.
This decision could severely impact user-generated content and lead to loss of revenue, not to mention increased frustration for content creators.
VPNs Aren’t The Enemy of Copyright Laws
While not all websites use geo-blocks, many will be impacted by the addition of the VPN detection ruling. On top of that, there’s no clarity on whether the ruling would only apply to certain websites or all of them.
GeoComply’s justification for its service’s necessity is that many people use VPNs to circumvent geo-blocks. While many people have used VPNs to access websites in the past, many have legitimate reasons for doing so. For example, people often have trouble accessing their own bank accounts when they’re traveling abroad due to IP-based fraud concerns.
People also use VPNs for a variety of privacy and security-related reasons. For instance, journalists and activists rely on VPNs to stay safe around the world. On top of that, many people who live in oppressive countries use VPNs to safely gain access to information and communication platforms.
All of these individuals would be penalized if websites start using VPN detection tools to prevent them from accessing what they need.
Recently, President Biden signed a number of cyber bills into effect, including the Federal Rotational Cyber Workforce Program Act, Better Cybercrime Metrics Act, and State and Local Government Cybersecurity Act. The SMART Copyright Act may follow in that vein, but could have a detrimental, rather than positive effect on the web and the people who use it.
Right now, US senators Thom Tillis and Patrick Leahy just introduced the first draft of this act to the Senate. Before we see it get to a vote, the act will have to pass scrutiny, and might receive various amendments. Even after that, there’s no guarantee it will get to the floor.
Anyone who values their right to digital privacy should keep a close eye on the SMART Copyright Act and make their voice heard, so lawmakers know how they feel.
Regardless of what happens with US policy, the CyberGhost VPN team is committed to the privacy and security of our Ghosties around the globe. We even provide secure dedicated IP addresses that can circumvent most VPN detection tools and our 8000+ servers across the world offer unlimited access to every corner of the web.
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