Russian netizens are downloading VPNs by the millions to challenge Putin

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RIGA, Latvia — When Russian authorities blocked hundreds of websites in March, Konstantin decided to act. The 52-year-old Moscow entrepreneur has punched a hole in the Digital Iron Curtain, which had been erected to control the narrative of the war in Ukraine, with a tool that allows him to surf blocked sites and taboo information.

Konstantin turned to a Virtual Private Network, an encrypted digital tunnel more commonly known as a VPN. Since the war began in February, VPNs have been downloaded in Russia by the hundreds of thousands a day – a massive surge in demand that represents a direct challenge to President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to cut Russians off from the rest of the world. By protecting users’ locations and identities, VPNs now allow millions of Russians to access blocked content.

Downloading one to his Moscow apartment, Konstantin said, brought back memories of the 1980s in the Soviet Union – when he used a shortwave radio to hear banned news of dissident arrests on Radio Liberty, funded by the United States.

“We didn’t know what was going on around us, and that’s still true now,” said Konstantin, who like other Russian VPN users spoke on the condition that his last name be hidden from view. fear of government reprisals. “A lot of people in Russia just watch TV and eat what the government gives them to eat. I wanted to know what was really going on.

Daily downloads in Russia of the 10 most popular VPNs jumped from less than 15,000 just before the war to 475,000 in March. This week, downloads were continuing at a rate of nearly 300,000 a day, according to data compiled for The Washington Post by analytics firm Apptopia, which relies on insights from apps, data accessible to public and an algorithm to propose estimates.

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

The Internet Protection Society, a digital rights group associated with imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, launched its own VPN service on March 20 and reached its limit of 300,000 users in 10 days, according to the director. executive Mikhail Klimarev. Based on 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.

To fight Putin, “Ukraine needs Javelin [missiles] and Russians need the internet,” Klimarev said.

By accessing banned Ukrainian and Western news sites, Konstantin said, he came to sympathize deeply with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a former comedian who the Russian press has sought to portray falsely 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 is also brave because I saw him speaking on Ukrainian news sites with my VPN,” Konstantin said.

Not only is the widespread use of VPN helping millions of people access documents describing the true extent of Russian military losses and counteracting the official portrayal of the war as a fight against fascists, according to Russian internet experts , but it also limits government surveillance of activists.

Mass flight of tech workers turns Russian IT into another casualty of war

Russian authorities have sought to limit the use of VPN. An anti-VPN law in 2017 resulted in the banning of more than a dozen providers for refusing to comply with Russian censorship rules.

In the days leading up to the war and in the weeks that followed, Russian authorities also stepped up pressure on Google, asking the search engine to remove thousands of URLs associated with VPNs, according to the Lumen database. an archive of legal complaints related to Internet Content. Google, which did not respond to a request for comment, still includes banned sites in search results.

The Russian government is reluctant to ban VPNs altogether. Maintaining such a ban would pose a technological challenge. Additionally, many Russians use VPNs to access non-political entertainment and communication tools – popular distractions from everyday struggles.

Last month, when asked by Belarusian TV if he had downloaded a VPN, even Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, conceded: “Yes, I downloaded a VPN. Why not?”

Since the war began on February 24, more than 1,000 websites have been restricted by Russian authorities, including Facebook, Instagram, BBC News, Voice of America and Radio Liberty, according to a survey by tech site Top10VPN. The last independent Russian outlets have been forced to close, and those in exile that offer critical content – ​​such as the popular Meduza – have also been banned.

Today, even calling Putin’s “special operation” – as he forcefully dubbed the invasion – a “war” risks a sentence of up to 15 years in prison. Freedom of expression has effectively disappeared; even teachers who question the invasion are reported to authorities by their students.

“People want to see banned content, but I think they’re also really scared,” said Tonia Samsonova, a London-based Russian media entrepreneur. “No matter your attitude towards the government or the war, every Russian knows that if the government knows too much about you, it is potentially dangerous. So a VPN is so useful even if they don’t criticize Putin.

Meduza spokeswoman Katerina Abramova said online traffic to the site only declined briefly after it was banned by Russian authorities in March. That’s because suddenly traffic started to spike from unlikely countries like the Netherlands, suggesting that Russians were using VPNs that made them appear abroad.

“VPNs won’t spark a massive revolution in Russia,” Abramova said. “But it’s a way for people who are against this war to stay connected to the world.”

Natalia, an 83-year-old Muscovite and former computer operator, asked her adult daughter to help her download a VPN to her laptop soon after the war began. She feared the government would ban YouTube, preventing her from watching her favorite program – an online talk show about tech news. The Kremlin has yet to block YouTube, although Russian internet experts say the likelihood remains high.

However, as the war progressed, Natalia found herself consulting banned news sites, including Radio Free Europe, to stay informed, even as friends around her joined “totally” in the government line that Ukrainians were Nazis and Russia faced an existential threat. from West.

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

She said, for example, that she had been able to read foreign reports suggesting that there had been heavy Russian losses in the sinking last month of the Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. But the Russian press reported only one official death, with 27 soldiers declared “missing”.

“Parents only get one response from the Ministry of Defense – that your son is ‘missing,'” she said. “Disappeared? You don’t really mean dead? But they don’t say that. They don’t tell the truth.”

Although downloading a VPN is technically easy, usually requiring just a few clicks, buying a paid VPN has become complicated in Russia, as Western sanctions have rendered Russian credit and debit cards almost useless at home. outside the country. This has forced many people to resort to free VPNs, which can have spotty service and can sell user information.

Vytautas Kaziukonis, chief executive of Surfshark — a Lithuania-based VPN that boosted the number of Russian users 20-fold in March — said some of those customers are now paying in cryptocurrencies or through people they know in third countries.

In a country accustomed to difficulties, Russians are good at creative workarounds. Elena, a 50-year-old tour operator in Moscow, said she managed to gain access to her old Facebook account by repeatedly signing up for free trials with a series of different VPN providers to avoid paying.

“We do what we have to do,” Elena said.

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