Last month, the revered VPN provider Mullvad announced they were removing port forwarding from their service citing abuse and legal concerns. Now IVPN, another reputable VPN service, has announced they too will be phasing out port forwarding from their offerings.
In a blog post, IVPN explained that while most of their customers use the port forwarding feature for legitimate purposes, “actions of a few can have undesirable consequences affecting the whole VPN network.” Specifically, they noted an increase in “large scale abuse and sharing of objectionable materials” as well as a “significant influx of new customers” after Mullvad’s policy change. This has put a strain on IVPN’s servers and operations.
IVPN also cited an increase in law enforcement inquiries and issues with data centers as reasons for removing port forwarding. “We have no insights into how any one specific customer uses IVPN, and that needs to stay that way,” IVPN wrote. “After careful deliberation, we have found no other way to avoid further negative outcomes, but to gradually remove the port forwarding feature from service.”
One customer asked why IVPN can’t just ban accounts reported for abuse rather than removing port forwarding altogether. IVPN responded that their priority is privacy-focused customers, and port forwarding also enables problematic uses that have strained their service since another major VPN provider banned port forwarding. Simply banning abusive accounts wouldn’t work since new anonymous accounts can be created quickly. IVPN concluded they must choose between offering port forwarding or ensuring a stable service long-term. While inconvenient for some, removing port forwarding seems the prudent choice.
Port forwarding allows VPN users to access services running behind the VPN like websites, game servers or self-hosted servers. However, as Mullvad and now IVPN have found, it can also be abused for malicious purposes like hosting undesirable or illegal content. This abuse has led to IP addresses getting blacklisted, issues with hosting providers, and a worse experience for most VPN users.
While some users may be upset with IVPN’s decision, as with Mullvad’s policy change, it seems to be a necessary step to protect the majority of their rule-abiding customers and ensure a stable service. The move may also help IVPN avoid some of the legal and abuse issues Mullvad cited in their announcement last month. Overall, IVPN appears to be making a prudent choice, even if an inconvenient one for some power users.
So… What now?
It’s important to acknowledge the legitimate users who relied on port forwarding for activities such as torrenting. For them, this change in policy may seem like an inconvenience or even a setback. However, alternate solutions like seedboxes, which are not plagued by these issues, remain viable options. These dedicated servers can provide high-speed torrenting, bypassing the need for port forwarding and offering an extra layer of privacy to boot.
That said, the struggle against illegal activities on the internet often resembles a game of cat and mouse. VPN providers like IVPN are caught in the middle, striving to balance the needs and wants of their user base with the necessity of maintaining lawful operations and robust relationships with their data center partners.
In the face of such challenges, it’s understandable that IVPN prioritizes its role in helping individuals avoid mass surveillance. This mission, to protect the privacy of the many, is fundamental to their service. In this light, the decision to restrict port forwarding — a feature that has been weaponized by a few individuals for illegal operations — becomes a sensible sacrifice for the greater good. It’s a testament to their commitment to privacy, operational stability, and the long-term viability of their service. As users, it’s crucial for us to understand these dynamics, adapt to these changes, and explore alternate solutions that align with our needs.
Not a new problem
IVPN’s policy change highlights an ongoing struggle that has persisted since the early days of the internet. There is a delicate balance between privacy and freedom that VPNs and other online services must grapple with.
On the one hand, VPNs are created to protect users’ privacy and allow them to avoid censorship and mass surveillance. Services like IVPN are necessary to give individuals access to information without oversight or limitations. However, the same privacy and anonymity these tools provide can also be exploited for malicious ends like the spread of illegal or objectionable content.
This tension is not new or unique to VPNs. It has been an issue since the development of the world wide web. While the internet was designed as an open platform for the free exchange of information and ideas, that openness also enables the spread of misinformation, privacy violations, online harassment, and more.
There is no easy solution to this dilemma. Companies and policymakers have experimented with various approaches over the years, from self-regulation to restrictive laws and policies. However, enacting limits on privacy or internet freedoms also poses risks if taken too far. It is a question with valid arguments on both sides.
For services like IVPN, decisions around port forwarding, privacy policies and allowable use come down to finding the right balance for their service and users. Their choice to restrict a feature prone to abuse is one approach to this complex problem. However, it is not without its downsides and there are no perfect or permanent answers. Managing privacy and freedom online remains an ongoing challenge without a simple fix.