Russians are rapidly turning to Internet services that cloak their location to help bypass restrictions on accessing foreign social media and news sites.
Providers of virtual private networks, or VPNs, are recording a surge in usage from Russia after the Kremlin cracked down on Facebook and other services as part of a broader effort to silence dissent and limit information about its invasion of Ukraine.
“In the past week, we saw traffic to our website from Russia increase by around 330% week over week,” Harold Li, vice president of ExpressVPN, said in an email to Bloomberg on Wednesday.
As of Tuesday, Russian interest in VPNs was more than eight times pre-invasion levels, according to data gathered by Top10VPN. Usage peaked at more than 10 times on March 5, the day after Facebook and Twitter were blocked by Russian authorities.
“To get the truth today in Russia, you need a VPN.”
VPNs are widely used and legal around the world and use encryption to create private connections between a user’s computer and a server in another city or country. This makes it difficult or impossible for that user’s local service provider – or law enforcement – to see what websites they access.
Surfshark says average weekly sales in Russia increased by 35 times since Feb 24, the day Russia started its invastion of Ukraine.
“The last time we saw a similar increase in sales was when China passed the Hong Kong Security Law in May 2020,” a spokesperson for the company said.
VPN users could be taking a significant risk. Russia’s parliament last week passed harsh laws that would impose prison terms for people charged with spreading “fake news” about the military or calling for sanctions against the country.
Tunnel Bear, another VPN provider, said on Twitter it was offering 10 gigabytes of data for anyone connecting from Russia “in order to ensure protest organisers, journalists and at-risk individuals have access to a safe and informed Internet”.
Usage in Russia is also surging for Proton AG’s VPN and email offering, with VPN usage up 10-times from pre-war levels.
“A lot of sources of information that people would traditionally turn to to find the truth are either blocked or at risk of being blocked,” Proton chief executive officer Andy Yen said. “To get the truth today in Russia, you need a VPN.” – Bloomberg