VPN Use in Russia Rises as Government Tightens Internet Control

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Russia has tightened its control over its Internet. Authorities blocked access to Meta-owned Facebook and restricted access to Twitter.

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Russians are turning to virtual private networks to circumvent the country’s increasingly strict internet controls following the invasion of Ukraine.

VPNs can hide a user’s identity and location to help them access blocked websites and services.

The top 10 VPN apps from the Apple App Store and Google Play Store in Russia collectively saw nearly 6 million downloads between February 24, the day the invasion began, and March 8, the data shows. of SensorTower compiled for CNBC.

This was up 1500% from the top 10 VPN apps in the previous 13 day period.

The Russian internet has been subject to censorship for years, although major US platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Google are freely accessible, unlike China where they are completely blocked. These companies, however, have operated under threat of being blocked, especially if they host content perceived as critical of the Kremlin.

But President Vladimir Putin has sought to tighten his grip on the internet more recently. In 2019, Russia enacted the “sovereign internet” law giving authorities sweeping powers to attempt to disconnect its internet from the rest of the world. At the time, Russia said the law was designed to strengthen its protection against cyberattacks.

As the invasion continues, Russia is seeking to further restrict access to foreign internet platforms. Facebook, owned by Meta, was blocked on March 4, while access to Twitter is restricted.

On March 5, demand for VPNs increased more than 10 times from the average, according to Top10VPNa review and data website.

“As various companies have begun restricting access to their products in Russia, VPN apps have seen an increase in market adoption as Russian users attempt to circumvent these restrictions,” a spokesperson said. from SensorTower to CNBC via email.

“VPN app installs will likely continue to increase as restrictions intensify. At the moment, marketplaces such as Apple’s App Store and Google Play are still available, but it could very well change in the future.”

VPN company Surfshark said its weekly sales in Russia have increased by 3,500% since February 24, with the biggest spikes occurring from March 5-6 when Facebook was blocked.

“Such a rapid increase means people living in Russia are actively looking for ways to avoid government surveillance and censorship,” a Surfshark spokesperson told CNBC.

Meanwhile, Twitter launched a version of its website on Tora service that encrypts Internet traffic to hide users’ identities and prevent them from being monitored.

As Russia moved to block services, a growing list of tech companies moved to suspend company operations.

This month, Netflix and Apple are among a long list of tech companies that have suspended sales or services in Russia.

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