The Russian authorities’ attempts to stifle internet freedom and further isolate the country from the rest of the world appear to be ramping up in the second year of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Over the course of the thirteen months since President Vladimir Putin launched his so-called "Special Military Operation", Russia's digital censor, Roskomnadzor, has implemented a widespread clampdown on scores of websites. The blacklist includes popular social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, alongside human rights websites and news media outlets such as the BBC, the Voice of America and Meduza. Almost all of these decisions are directly linked to dissent and criticism of the government’s decision to invade Ukraine.
In addition, more than 10,000 websites have been blocked for allegedly distributing materials that “discredit the Russian armed forces.” The blocks are ordered by the country's Prosecutor General's Office, which holds the power to unilaterally suppress large sections of the internet without the need for court approval, often resulting in sweeping, mass-blocking of sites. On one occasion, a single decision resulted in the blocking of over 6,000 URLs accused of spreading fake news about the military.
In an attempt to get around the ever-increasing restrictions, Russians have increasingly turned to Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), technology that allows the user to access a website by re-routing the connection through servers located abroad, granting unfettered access to the internet and bypassing government bans.
According to the latest data from the VPN Adoption Index by Atlas VPN, downloads in Russia have experienced a significant upswing, increasing from 12.59mn in 2021 to 33.54mn in 2022. In 2022, the first year of the invasion, approximately 25% of the Russian population installed VPNs on their devices, making Russia the eighth most popular country for VPN usage worldwide.
The growth in VPN usage among the Russian populace has even spread to less internet-savvy demographics. What was once used almost exclusively by the younger, internet-literate generation has now spread much wider. Before the war, these services were primarily used by tourists, expats and those seeking to watch foreign versions of Netflix. Nowadays, millions of Russians are now turning to VPNs just to see photos of their friends on Instagram.
The rapid rise in popularity of VPNs has now evolved into an ongoing technological game of whack-a-mole between the Russian government and VPN companies. Instead of accepting defeat when targeted by authoritarian states, these companies have started actively developing strategies to bypass the restrictions on internet freedom imposed by the government, including setting up new servers and working on more advanced protocols. These efforts have been especially notable from VPN providers that have been singled out and banned by the Russian authorities, like ExpressVPN.
In September 2022, several of the most widely used VPN services, including ExpressVPN, were officially blocked. Despite this, ExpressVPN and most other VPNs remained fully functional until February 2023, without any significant interruptions. The situation has now changed significantly. In recent weeks, Russian users have taken to social media to complain that many of the country’s most popular VPNs no longer work on mobile internet connections provided by MTS, Megafon, Tele2, as well as several home internet providers, suggesting that Moscow’s clampdown has ramped up. These same complaints have also been shared by numerous foreign correspondents and expatriates living and working in Russia.
ExpressVPN itself has also reported that operating in Russia has become harder than ever before.
“The Russian government is actively blocking VPN connections at the moment,” an ExpressVPN customer service message read. “Sorry for the inconvenience. The challenge present by these most recent roadblocks has been unprecedented.”
VPN blocking is typically accomplished through targeted blocking of IP addresses or restrictions on protocols, such as those placed on OpenVPN or IKEv2.
In recent years, the use of VPNs to bypass government censorship and gain access to restricted information has become increasingly popular, and not just in Russia, as individuals seek out means to protect their online privacy and access the free flow of information that the internet can provide.
Beyond Russia, Turkey has also recently experienced a significant erosion of internet freedom. In February, the country was hit by a devastating earthquake that exposed serious deficiencies in the country’s emergency response mechanisms, sparking widespread public discontent. In response to mounting criticism of the government's handling of the disaster, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan decided to impose a temporary ban on Twitter, which only fuelled the demand for VPNs as people looked for alternative ways to stay informed and voice their grievances. ProtonVPN, located in Switzerland, noted that the peak in hourly sign-ups from Turkish customers rose 30,000% above normal levels in the immediate hours after Ankara blocked access to Twitter.