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How Russians are using VPNs to evade internet blockade

How Russians are using VPNs to evade internet blockade
Written by publisher team

Data: Top10VPN; Note: Most recent spikes shown for countries with multiple events; Map: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

Tools to sidestep internet restrictions have surged in Russia following the invasion of Ukraine and the government’s decision to block some social media services, including Facebook.

Why it matters: Finding ways around Russia’s internet could enable its citizens to stay connected to the rest of the world and gather information from sources beyond state-owned outlets.

Catch up quick: Virtual private networks, or VPNs, enable users to hide their locations to evade location-based restrictions and make browsing more private by encrypting internet traffic.

By the numbers: Demand for VPNs surged by 1,092% in Russia on March 5, the day after Russia blocked access to Facebook, according to Top10VPN.com.

  • Demand in Ukraine climbed 609% higher than before the invasion began, according to the site, which tracks search volume data.
  • Downloads of eight popular VPN apps in Russia grew from 12,848 on Feb. 15 to 415,547 on March 7, according to data from Apptopia.

Meanwhile, VPN providers are reporting spikes as well.

  • Surfshark said average weekly sales in Russia have increased by 3,500% since Feb. 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine, and spiked after the country blocked Facebook and other Western media.
  • Another provider, ExpressVPN, said traffic to its website last week from Russia increased by about 330% week over week. Likewise, traffic from Ukraine increased by about 130%.
  • Proton said it has seen a 1,000% increase in sign ups for its VPN service in Russia this month.

What they’re saying: “It’s no surprise that VPNs and other encryption tools are seeing a major uptick in sign ups right now,” Proton founder and CEO Andy Yen said.

  • “For citizens in Ukraine and Russia, it’s the only thing providing a semblance of online privacy and freedom.”

Between the lines: VPN use in Russia is legal, but accessing officially blocked content is not, said Simon Migliano, head of research at Top10VPN.com, who also noted there are about 15 VPN services that have been banned by Russian authorities.

  • “Whenever authoritarian regimes seek to control their citizens and suppress their access to information and their ability to communicate with one another, there will always be push-back,” Migliano said in an email to Axios.

Yes, but: Russia is already trying to block VPN traffic at the network level, Migliano said, and he expects that to intensify.

  • “This is a game of cat-and-mouse, and the best VPN services have years of hard-won experience gained in China in obfuscating their traffic,” Migliano said.
  • “As a result, these VPN services are providing Russians with critical access to officially banned independent, foreign and social media, even if Russian users may have to deal with switching servers and even apps from time to time.”

The big picture: Conflicts and internet crackdowns in recent years have sparked similar VPN surges in other countries, including Myanmar, Nigeria and Kazakhstan.

  • Demand skyrocketed by 3,405% in Kazakhstan in January following an internet blackout during anti-government protesters, according to Top10VPN.com.
  • Surfshark saw a 700% increase in sales when China passed the Hong Kong national security law, but the rapid rise of downloads in Russia is official, Gabriele Racaityte told Axios.

Reality check: Journalists might be quicker to turn to VPNs to report sensitive information than everyday citizens.

  • “Governments count on the fact that the majority of people, either through ignorance or fear, won’t defy the retain restrictions, thus allowing them to hold their grip on power,” Migliano said.

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