Russians are flocking to VPNs to evade internet ban

Data: Top10VPN; Note: The most recent highs are shown for countries with multiple events; Map: Kavya Bahraj / Axios

Tools for avoiding internet restrictions have increased in Russia after the invasion of Ukraine and the government’s decision to ban some social media services, including Facebook.

why does it matter: Finding ways to get around Russia’s internet ban could enable its citizens to stay connected to the rest of the world and gather information from sources outside state-owned outlets.

Quick catch up: Virtual Private Networks, or VPNs, enable users to hide their locations to avoid location-based restrictions and make browsing more private by encrypting their internet traffic.

In numbers: Demand for VPNs rose 1.092% in Russia on March 5, the day after Russia blocked access to Facebook, according to Top10VPN.com.

  • Demand in Ukraine is 609% higher than it was before the invasion began, according to the site that tracks search volume data.
  • Downloads of eight popular VPN apps in Russia grew from 1,848 on February 15 to 415,547 on March 7, according to data from Apptopia.

at the same time, VPN providers are reporting mutations as well.

  • Surfshark said average weekly sales in Russia have risen 3,500% since February 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine, and have risen after the country blocked Facebook and other Western media.
  • Another provider, ExpressVPN, said that traffic to its website last week from Russia increased by about 330% weekly. Similarly, traffic from Ukraine increased by about 130%.
  • Proton said it saw a 1,000% increase in subscriptions to its VPN service in Russia this month.

what are they saying: “Andy Yen, founder and CEO of Proton, said it’s no surprise that VPNs and other encryption tools are seeing a huge increase in subscriptions right now.

  • “For citizens of Ukraine and Russia, it is the only thing that provides a semblance of privacy and freedom online.”

Between the lines: Simon Migliano, Head of Research at Top10VPN.com, said VPN use in Russia is legal, but access to officially blocked content is not, and also noted that there are about 15 VPN services that have been blocked by Russian authorities.

  • “When authoritarian regimes seek to control their citizens and suppress their access to information and their ability to communicate with each other, there will always be pushback,” Miliano said in an email to Axios.

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

  • “This is a cat-and-mouse game, and the best VPN services have years of hard-earned experience in China obfuscating their traffic,” Migliano said.
  • “As a result, these VPN services provide Russians with significant access to independent, foreign, and officially banned 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 online crackdowns in recent years have triggered similar increases in VPNs in other countries, including Myanmar, Nigeria, and Kazakhstan.

  • Demand surged 3,405% in Kazakhstan in January after internet was cut off during anti-government protests, according to Top10VPN.com.
  • Surfshark saw a 700% increase in sales when China passed the national security law for Hong Kong, but the rapid rise in downloads in Russia is unprecedented, company spokesperson Gabriel Rasetti told Axios.

Reality check: Journalists may be quicker to turn to VPNs to report sensitive information than ordinary citizens.

  • “Governments rely on the fact that the majority of people, either out of ignorance or fear, will not defy restrictions, allowing them to retain their grip on power,” Migliano said.