Russian authorities have attempted to isolate their nation’s internet from the rest of the world since the start of the war in Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Hundreds of websites have already been blocked, including two major social media platforms – Instagram and Facebook.
Russians are turning to VPNs to bypass the country’s tightening internet controls. A VPN or Virtual Private Network changes your IP address allowing the user to mask where they are located by rerouting all your internet traffic through an encrypted tunneland shields your identity from companies, hackers or governments that want to track you.
The recently updated VPN Adoption Index by Atlas VPN reveals that VPN downloads in Russia grew from 12.59 million in 2021 to 33.54 million in 2022, representing a YoY growth of 167%.
In 2020, only 4.9 million downloads originated from Russia, which put the VPN adoption rate at 3.37%, ranking the country at the 55th spot globally. While last year, nearly a quarter (22.98%) of the country’s population installed VPN services on their devices, with Russia becoming the 8th most popular market for VPNs.
The most significant wave of VPN installs from Russia began on March 11, 2022, when the Russian government’s communication agency announced it would block Instagram and Facebook after finding Meta Platforms Inc. “extremist.” On March 14, 2022, the number of VPN installs originating from Russia increased by 11,253% above the norm.
VPN providers, however, are still subject to Russia’s restrictions. According to the Lumen database, a repository that records legal demands for the removal of internet information, Roskomnadzor, an internet regulation body in Russia, sent more than 12,800 requests to Google between March 13 and March 25, 2022 asking to delete URLs in accordance with the nation’s 2017 “VPN law.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law that restricts the use of anonymous proxy servers and VPNs. VPN services will have to alter their protocol to comply with Roskomnadzor if they wish to continue operating their servers in Russia. This includes keeping track of all conversations and providing secure backdoors for the government to access the system and its users. These requirements, of course, would be in total opposition to the purpose of VPNs.
In March 2019, a year before the war, several of the biggest VPN providers received a notification from Roskomnadzor ordering them to join the Federal State Information System (FSIS). Shortly after, the majority of popular VPN providers shut down their servers in Russia.
“It is hard to foresee how far the Russian government will go in its attempts to quell online anti-war sentiment and further sculpt the war’s narrative. ” stated Edvardas Garbenis, a representative with Atlas VPN. “If the current censoring trend continues,” adds Garbenis, “we may see the demand for Virtual Private Networks in Russia growing further in 2023.”