May 7, 2024 2 min read

Quarter of French VPN users use the tool to access illegal content, says new study

French government agency Arcom has published a study looking at the use of VPNs to circumvent anti-piracy web-blocks. They are definitely used for accessing blocked sites, although circumventing web-blocks is not a key motivating factor for employing a VPN

Quarter of French VPN users use the tool to access illegal content, says new study

The French broadcast and internet regulator Arcom - which also incorporates the old anti-piracy agency Hadopi - has published a new study on the use of VPNs and DNS modification to circumvent the web-blocks put in place against copyright infringing websites.

Based on a survey of over 3000 French internet users, Arcom reckons that “29% of French people have used a VPN personally in the last twelve months and 20% have already changed their DNS settings on one of their devices”. Of those using a VPN, “24% say they use it to illegally access content”. However, most respondents insist that accessing illegal content is not the primary factor motivating the use of a VPN. 

Web-blocking has become an anti-piracy tactic of choice for the music and movie industries in those countries where copyright law provides such a thing. Under this system, copyright owners go to a court or government agency and secure injunctions ordering internet service providers to block access to websites that primarily exist to facilitate copyright infringement. 

In France, the launch of Arcom at the start of 2022 made the web-blocking process quicker and, in 2022 alone, 800 sites were blocked. Web-blocking is also prolific in the UK. Meanwhile, in the US - where web-blocking is not currently available - the movie industry is having another go at trying to get it introduced. 

That said, even the most web-block happy copyright owners recognise that web-blocking is no panacea. There are various ways for people to circumvent web-blocks, including by using a VPN - or Virtual Private Network - or employing DNS modification - such as using a third party DNS resolver. As a result, in more recent years we've seen copyright owners try to persuade or force the operators of VPNs and DNS resolvers to also instigate web-blocks, with mixed success. 

In the Arcon study, 81% said they had heard of VPNs, while 49% said they understood what a VPN did. 49% had heard of changing DNS settings, and 23% understood how that worked. In total, 35% of those surveyed were either using a VPN or modifying DNS or both. 

There are various reasons why a user might employ a VPN or modify DNS, of course. Of the VPN users surveyed, 49% said that a key motivating factor was that VPN use provided more anonymity and privacy on the internet. 23% said VPNs were good for accessing geo-blocked content on legit streaming platforms. Only 17% cited accessing blocked streaming sites as a motivating factor, with 12% citing accessing blocked download sites. 

For the movie industry, the use of VPNs to circumvent geo-blocked content - for example, to access movies and TV programmes available on Netflix in one country which are not available on that platform in the user’s home country - is also a concern, given geo-blocking is much more common with that kind of content. 

However, for the music industry, the main concern is when VPNs are used to access unlicensed streaming or download services, or stream-ripping platforms. 

Of the people surveyed, 24% admitted to accessing at least one item of content from a piracy service in the last year. Of that group, more users - 37% - cited web-block circumvention as a motivating factor for using a VPN. Circumventing web-blocks was also a higher motivating factor for those who have started using VPNs in the last three years. However, protecting anonymity and privacy is still more important to those VPN users. 

Despite all that, web-blocking copyright owners seem likely to continue to consider how they can put more pressure on VPNs and DNS resolvers to try to extend the reach of the web-blocks now routinely instigated by ISPs.

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