Private proxies are one of the most popular tools for privacy-savvy web users to remain anonymous online. They allow individuals to filter web access from one server to another, accessing the intervening server. This protects their IP address from the target site, allowing private proxies to serve as protectors of both privacy and security. Most malware exploits will not function through private proxy, either.
However, recent court rulings out of California have left many asking whether or not private proxies are legal in the United States.
Yes, Private Proxies are Legal in the USA
The bottom line is that, as with any tool, proxies are entirely legal. However, as with any tool, they can be used for unlawful purposes, and recent rulings have significantly changed what may qualify as unlawful.
The History of Proxy Laws in the USA
The current laws concerning private proxies were introduced in 1986. The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act originally served to throttle federal jurisdiction with respect to computer-related crimes.
Unless a case had escalated to a significant scale or grew to encompass national interests across state lines, federal enforcers simply weren’t to get involved with the particulars of how the crime was committed.
Eﬀectively, it only handed them the tools to prosecute the same crimes that had always fallen within their sphere, with the specific inclusion of those crimes when they were committed over a network.
A ruling out of Northern California has changed that. One Judge Breyer has held that circumventing a block placed by a website to forbid a particular user entry is a violation of the CFAA.
This is one of the most common uses of a private proxy, and it is a natural consequence of simple use with or without the intent to circumvent a block.
This means that simply navigating to a website you have been banned from through a proxy, whether or not you are aware of the ban and whether or not you intend to circumvent it, could constitute a violation of the CFAA.
This is perhaps the scariest element of the whole question, but it isn’t inaccessible. It just requires understanding what you need to be aware of. The following are some examples of when it isn’t okay to use a private proxy.
When is Using a Proxy Considered Illegal?
Spamming & Bypassing IP Bans
This is the most glaring incidence of proxies being used to infringe, because accessing a site you ought to be blocked from is very simple. Blocking can only be done by IP address or IP range.
You don’t need to have a private proxy to get around this. Resetting your router can achieve the same eﬀect, and it’s likely that your IP address will cycle not-infrequently. This can be navigated safely by understanding the terms of service in use on any site you will be actively engaging with.
Understand what kind of access they do or do not allow. If you stay within their parameters, you are likely in the clear with respect to whether or not you can safely access their site via proxy.
It is very common for sites to intend blocks as a means of forbidding interaction to prevent abuse rather than preventing access for passive use; most sites draw their income from traﬃc, so reducing traﬃc outright with a ban isn’t something most will be interested in when they can functionally silence troublemakers. If the ruling out of California holds, this will likely grow more common as sites try to adapt.
Circumventing International Copyright Laws
A more serious example is rooted in copyright law. An increase in streaming media on the web has made regional copyright status a major hot button.
Many entertainment products fall under regional copyright in some countries but not in others. In some cases, this is considered a grey zone by various fans. Laws from overseas nations regarding media that is entirely unlicensed in other nations can’t generally be enforced.
It gets more complicated when proxies enter the picture. Streaming media that is expressly blocked in your home country by using a private proxy physically located in another country can be prosecuted in the same fashion as other copyright violations.
The only protection for users engaged in this behavior lies in the hands of the owners of the proxy servers themselves, who may be subpoenaed for your home IP address and identity.
Neither of these make proxies illegal in any fashion, but it does mean that users of private proxies should understand their proxy service and understand the sites they use it to visit.
How to Stay Legal with your Proxies
Don’t Use a Blackhat Proxy Service
You should look into the goals and inclinations of your private proxy service. Some private proxy services have expressly-blackhat ideas and are intended for those that are going to deliberately circumvent IP trackers for illicit reasons.
Whitehat proxy services will cheerfully comply with regional restrictions and other issues on their own; they’ll eﬀectively prevent you from making any mistakes. Private proxies with bad intentions will not oﬀer you the same peace of mind.
Always Read the Terms & Conditions
Those concerned about the legality of their proxy are best served by looking carefully at the terms and conditions of the sites they value. Many diﬀerent sites have diﬀerent takes on what constitutes a blocked user or forbidden access to their site.
Many have diﬀerent ideas about whether or not diﬀering or concealed IP addresses are considered a violation of policy. Some are choosing to enumerate the use of a proxy as explicitly allowed in response to recent questions about this topic. Others are banning proxies outright on general principle. Make it a point to understand how diﬀerent sites feel about access via proxy.
Under some circumstances, users will be permitted to read or access data from a site through a proxy, but not contribute material. This is a compromise drawn to hold people more accountable for the things they say online while still allowing for secure browsing. This model is likely to catch on with greater force as both privacy and online conduct come into focus as issues to manage.
Use General Common Sense
Of course, common sense should be applied. If you have been banned from any site or service on the web, don’t use private proxies or any other method to circumvent the ban. Circumventing it passively with IP-switching your router might already enable this.
It is also a bad idea regardless of what the new legal implications may be. Most of the questions that are raised by this new ruling can be avoided by simply monitoring your own conduct and being respectful to webmasters while using private proxies responsibly and legally.
In conclusion, private proxies are legal in the US as long as they are used appropriately. If you are concerned about unlawful access, you probably aren’t going to find yourself getting into trouble anytime soon. Simply keep yourself educated and be aware of the particular pitfalls that might cause you to break the law unknowingly, and you should do fine.