Are VPNs/proxies (and VPN/proxy software such as Tunnelblick and Hola) legal in the U.S., assuming that you are doing legitimate activities on the Internet (i.e. nothing illegal)?
Ask a lawyer for legal advice, but yes. There are many VPNs and proxy services run in the US, and the most common use of VPNs are for corporate connections, so there are literally thousands in use at any time.
Lacking a handy lawyer to ask, I turn to the next best thing, the Source of All Truth, i.e. the Almighty Internet and its prophet Google. This unearths a few links:
This article seems to indicate that in one case where a client modified its IP address to bypass a blocking rule, a judge ruled that the bypassing was illegal in some sense. It was in California. The case is also covered there.
That blog claims that IP blocking is actually illegal in California (but that's a blog post from some individual, not an actual ruling by a judge).
It can be expected that the problem is complex, and answers will vary a lot depending on the jurisdiction. Not every Internet user lives in the USA, let alone North California. Furthermore, there are a lot of jurisdictions where the "common law" principle is at work, meaning (roughly) that law is actually made by judges, so any case without precedent is in some sort of legal limbo.
One can expect, though, that in many cases where a service publisher put in place an IP-based blocking system (for instance to restrict the service to client from some specific countries), and a user goes through some VPN to bypass that blocking system, then the said user probably contravenes to the service's usage terms and conditions. Whether this is actually illegal is another matter, because usage terms and conditions are not a law matter until somebody sues somebody, and it is known that a lot of clauses in "usage terms and conditions" documents as they exist nowadays are not actually sustainable in court.
So my answer to your question is the following: while using a VPN to do "nothing illegal" is, by definition, completely legal as well, it might be that bypassing an IP-based geo-blocking system (as I understand it, that's the main point of services like Hola) could be ruled illegal (it is not the "VPN" which is illegal, but the "bypassing", independently of the method by which the bypassing is enacted). However, since this is a civil matter, no police force will break down your down at 06:00 AM until some formal complaining from the service provider occurs; thus, it is unlikely that by accessing a service through a VPN to bypass a IP-based geo-block you incur a risk higher than termination of your user account on that service.
None of the above apply to countries with a, let's say, less refined notion of democracy and rule of law, such as North Korea.
- This website is not intended for legal opinions - that's what lawyers are for. You'd be well advised not to take any legal advice you received for free on the internet.
- If VPN's and proxies were illegal there would be a lot of enterprises in some really hot legal water. They're commonly used to access resources that are behind firewalls.