As the war (or if you're in Russia, the "special operation") continues to rage on, Russian authorities have banned the last semblance of independent journalism and are amplifying efforts to restrict domestic access to free information. But millions of Russians are not having it and are flocking to virtual private networks (or VPNs) to browse the free internet.
The demand for VPNs, which allow the user to browse the internet privately and without restriction, skyrocketed in Russia after the invasion. Between February 27 and March 3, demand surged by 668% -- but after Russia blocked Facebook and Twitter on March 4, the demand for VPNs grew even more, peaking at 1,092% above the average before the invasion.
By March 5, all the top ten most downloaded apps in Russia are essentially VPNs.
Overall, the Google Play Store saw 3.3 million VPN downloads, while the Apple App Store had 1.3 million. That's 4.6 million VPN downloads since the invasion started (Russia has a population of around 144 million).
Russian authorities have not yet blocked app stores, although they have the ability to do so. However, they are trying to block VPN traffic at the network level -- drawing from China's experience in censoring the internet. It's a bit of an arms race: VPNs may be blocked, and then they have to find new ways of evading censorship (often by switching servers).
For users, this means they may be forced to change servers or even apps regularly if they want to access independent, foreign publishers and social media. Otherwise, they will have to contend with the warped, distorted reality typically present in Russian state-owned media.
Russia's internet censorship is not as stringent as China's, but it could be getting there very quickly. As Russia becomes more and more isolated, the Kremlin is trying to cast an online iron curtain to block its people from accessing the free internet. The Russian parliament also approved a law making the spreading of "false" news about the war in Ukraine a criminal offense punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Even the word "war" is banned in Russian media.
It's not the first time we're seeing something like this. In January, VPN demand in Kazakhstan also skyrocketed by over 3,400% following an internet blackout during anti-government protests. When China passed the Hong Kong national security law, VPN demand also surged (in a country where VPN usage is already common). Myanmar and Nigeria went through similar situations. However, the increase in demand is unprecedented, VPN providers say
VPN demand in Ukraine has also climbed 609% higher than before the invasion, mostly spiked by fears that invading forces will also carry out cyberattacks.