VPN use skyrockets in Australia amid privacy concerns

With data retention now in the law books and rights holders given the green light to chase individual pirates, VPNs are more popular than ever with Australians looking to cover their tracks online.

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Australian internet users are flocking to VPNs in droves, with one major provider seeing a 500 percent increase in VPN subscriptions for the Australian market.

The massive uptick in VPN usage comes off the back of a number of major changes in the way Australians are tracked online, including the passage of mandatory data retention legislation and a major Federal Court ruling granting rights holders access to the personal information of individual pirates in order to pursue legal action.

As Australians faced the prospect of having their online movements scrutinised more closely, the Federal Government has also tabled draft legislation allowing the blocking of overseas piracy websites and mandated the introduction of a new industry code to bring in three strikes infringement notices for copyright infringement.

Now, as many as 16 percent of Australians are using a service such as Tor or a VPN to protect their privacy online, according to new research from Essential Media, with more than one in five Australians aged 18-34 paying to hide their digital identity.

Google Trends shows the popularity of searches for the term "VPN" in Australia over the past 12 months. Screenshot by Claire Reilly/CNET

VPN service providers have credited the major changes in the way online activity is policed in Australia with the growing trend towards VPN subscriptions.

According to Ali Mansoor, digital marketing strategist at PureVPN, VPN subscriptions in Australia have been on the rise since October 2014 -- the same month that iiNet began legal action with Dallas Buyers Club, new online surveillance powers were granted to ASIO and the Data Retention Bill hit Parliament.

Since then, Mansoor says interest has only risen.

"As of early March, subscriptions went through the roof," he said. "We observed a 500 percent rise in subscriptions from Australia. Traffic and sales from the Australian region has surpassed even the United States!"

But it's not just data retention and digital surveillance that have motivated Australians to get a VPN -- accessing content continues to be a driving force for Australians.

"Entertainment is probably the primary reason why people sign on to the service to begin with," said Mansoor. "So we look forward to the new season of Game of Thrones."

But Australians are also opting for a VPN to access legitimate content services, including the recently-launched streaming service from HBO out of the US, HBO Now.

"We noted an increase in traffic towards our blogs about HBO Now and how to access it. Seems Australians are rather enthusiastic about the new service," he said. However, he added that while the service had increased traffic and sales for VPNs, "it certainly can't be compared to the boost brought on by the Data Retention bill or the Dallas Buyers Club case".

The trend isn't just limited to one provider. Speaking to TorrentFreak, Ben Van der Pelt of TorGuard said his company's VPN service had proven popular with Australians, with subscriptions from this country now accounting for half of the company's total business.

"Over the past week TorGuard has seen a massive jump in Australian subscribers," said Van der Pelt. "Traffic from this region is currently up over 150% and recent trends indicate that the upsurge is here to stay."