A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a method by which a computer can securely connect using a public connection to a private network located elsewhere. Once a connection is established to the VPN, the administrator of the public connection cannot have any control over what content is delivered through the VPN to the remote computer and cannot monitor or intercept any of that traffic.
VPNs are regularly used by companies to connect their branches to their head office, thus ensuring that their communications remain secure. VPNs are also used by consumers all around the world to ensure that their connections are secure when using untrusted public connections such as those available in cafes, hotels and other public venues.
The authorities in Oman do not like VPNs because using a VPN circumvents all the censorship and regulations imposed over the Internet. If you connect to a VPN using a local ISP such as Omantel or Nawras, you can view any website, even if that website is blocked by the local ISP which you are using to connect to the VPN. Using VPNs also allows users in Oman to connect to blocked services such as Skype.
In 2010, the TRA sought public consultation over draft regulations that would have made VPN totally illegal for private use and would have required establishments to acquire a license from TRA to use VPN for commercial use. These draft regulations never materialised and the feedback the TRA received about them was never published.
While it is understandable that TRA would not be happy to have the public circumvent all the restrictions that it imposes on the Internet by using a VPN, it would be unreasonable for TRA to ban the use of VPN for private use. This is because using VPN in certain situations is fundamental towards ensuring that the user is protected from Web criminals and identity thieves.
It is extremely common for people to log into public networks in cafes and hotels, and using a VPN in these circumstances can be the only guarantee that your connection would not be compromised by the administrators of these networks or by anybody else who manages to take control over that network. Taking such precautions in certain countries where there is a high risk of Internet scams is a serious necessity, and it is not logical to stop consumers from taking such precautionary measures.
Instead of making more futile attempts at censoring the Internet, TRA should accept that this is an impossible task to accomplish. The position of the law in regard to encryption as it stands is pointless. TRA should focus on improving the Internet and providing us with rights that guarantee that our privacy will be protected instead of creating more barriers to connecting with the rest of the world.
Riyadh Abdul Aziz is a blogger interested in the relationship between the web and society. You can e-mail Riyadh at email@example.com