How millions of Russians are making holes in the digital iron curtain

How millions of Russians are making holes in the digital iron curtain

The huge increase in VPN downloads poses a challenge for Putin and Ukraine’s version of the war

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RIGA, Latvia – When Russian authorities blocked hundreds of websites in March, Constantine took action. The 52-year-old company executive made a hole in Moscow in the digital iron curtain erected to control the narrative of the war in Ukraine with a tool that allows him to browse blocked websites and taboo news.

Constantine has returned to the virtual private network, the encrypted digital tunnel more commonly known as a VPN. Since the start of the war in February, VPNs have been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times a day in Russia – a huge increase in demand, a direct challenge to President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to isolate Russians from the rest of the world. VPNs now provide access to blocked content for millions of Russians, protecting users’ location and identity.

Constantine said the demolition of one in his Moscow apartment was reminiscent of memories of the 1980s in the Soviet Union, when he used shortwave radio to listen to banned news about the arrests of dissidents on US-funded Radio Liberty.

“We didn’t know what was going on around us, and it’s still happening right now,” said Konstantin, who, like other Russian VPN users, spoke on the condition that his name was not revealed for fear of government retaliation. “Many people in Russia watch TV and eat what the government eats. I really wanted to know what was going on. “

Daily downloads of the 10 most popular VPNs in Russia went from 15,000 before the war to 475,000 in March. As of this week, downloads were running at 300,000 per day, according to data compiled for the Washington Post by analytics firm Apptopia, which relies on app information, public data, and an algorithm for making predictions.

Russian customers often download multiple VPNs, but the data delivers millions of new customers per month. In early April, Russian telecom operator Yota said the number of VPN users was 53.5 times higher than in January, according to state news service Tass.

Internet Community, a digital rights group affiliated with jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, launched its VPN service on March 20, and CEO Mikhail Klimarev said he hit the limit of 300,000 users in 10 days. According to internal surveys, Klimarev estimates that the number of VPN users in Russia has risen to around 30% of the country’s 100 million internet users.

“Ukraine needs Javelin to fight Putin [missiles] “The Russians need the Internet,” Klimarev said.

Accessing banned Ukrainian and Western news sites, Konstantin said he felt deep sympathy for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a former comedian who tried to portray the Russian press as a “drug addict”. He was recently compared to Adolf Hitler by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

“I loved him as an actor, but now I know Zelensky was brave too because I saw him on Ukrainian news sites talking to my VPN,” Konstantin said.

Russian internet experts say the widespread use of VPNs not only helps millions of people access material that reflects the true extent of Russian military casualties and contradicts the official concept of war fighting fascists, but also limits surveillance of the government. activists.

The mass migration of technical workers makes Russian IT another casualty of the war

Russian authorities have tried to limit the use of the VPN. In 2017, the anti-VPN law led to a ban on more than a dozen providers for refusing to abide by Russian censorship rules.

In the days before and after the war, Russian authorities also increased pressure on Google, asking the search engine to remove thousands of VPN-connected URLs, according to the Lumen database, according to the Legal Complaints Archive. Internet content. By not responding to a request for comment, Google still included banned sites in its search results.

The Russian government avoids banning VPNs outright. This prohibition police poses a technological challenge. Additionally, many Russians use VPNs to access non-political communication and entertainment tools, which distract popular attention from everyday challenges.

Asked by Belarusian television if it had downloaded the VPN last month, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov also admitted: “Yes, I know. Because?”

Since the war began on February 24, the Russian government has restricted more than 1,000 websites, including Facebook, Instagram, BBC News, Voice of America, and Radio Liberty. Top10VPN tech site survey. Recent independent Russian media have been forced to close and exiled media offering critical content, such as the popular Medusa, have also been banned.

Today, even Putin’s “special operation” – what he calls a forced occupation – is called “war” with a prison sentence of up to 15 years. Freedom of expression has almost disappeared; Teachers who contest the attack also report their students to the authorities.

“People want to see banned content, but I think they’re afraid,” said Tonia Samsonova, a Russian media entrepreneur based in London. “No matter your attitude towards the government or the war, all Russians know that if the government knows too much about you, it is potentially dangerous. So VPNs are very useful even if they don’t criticize Putin. “

Meduza spokesperson Katerina Abramova said online traffic to the site dropped shortly after it was banned by Russian authorities in March. This is because traffic suddenly starts to increase from less likely countries like the Netherlands, which makes it seem like Russians are using VPNs, making them overseas.

“VPNs are not going to start a large-scale revolution in Russia,” Abramova said. She said she. Only in this way can those who oppose this war maintain their connection with the world, ”she said.

Shortly after the war broke out, Natalia, 83, a native of Moscow and a former computer operator, asked her adult daughter to help her download a VPN on her laptop. She feared the government would ban YouTube, preventing him from watching her favorite show of hers, an online talk show about tech news. The Kremlin has yet to block YouTube, although Russian internet experts say the probability is high.

Before the war, Natalia explored banned news sites, including Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, to stay informed, even though her friends knew “fully” through the government that the Ukrainians were Nazis and were inside Russia. existential danger. from the west.

“People believe lie after lie. “I feel very isolated,” she said.

For example, he said he could read foreign news reports suggesting that the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet suffered significant Russian casualties in the sinking of Moscow last month. However, the Russian media reported only one official death, in which 27 soldiers were reported “missing”.

“Parents only get one response from the Department of Defense: your son is ‘missing’,” she said. “loss? Do you really mean the dead? But they don’t say it. They are not telling the truth.”

While downloading a VPN is technically easy, often requiring only a few clicks, purchasing a paid VPN has become difficult in Russia as Western sanctions have made Russian credit and debit cards nearly useless outside the country. This has led many to turn to free VPNs, which can offer a fragile service and sell user information.

Vytautas Kaziukonis, CEO of Surfshark, a Lithuania-based VPN that increased the number of Russian users 20 times in March, said some users now pay via cryptocurrency or people they know in third countries.

In a country accustomed to difficulties, Russians are skilled in the creative aspects. Elena, a 50-year-old Moscow tour operator, said she managed to create an old Facebook account for free trials with various VPN providers to avoid paying.

“Let’s do what we have to do,” said Elena.

Source: Washington Post