Ten years ago, 261 websites were blocked by the Russian government. Last year, that number exceeded 70,000, Internet freedom activists saywhile more than 5,400 sites have been blocked since Russia launched its massive invasion of Ukraine in late February.
In response, a growing number of Russians have turned to VPNs – virtual private networks that hide internet users’ locations and allow them to see blocked websites. According to the Times of London, 24 million Russians – about a quarter of all adult internet users – used a VPN in May, compared to 1.6 million before the invasion.
Market research service AppMagic reported that Russians downloaded VPNs more than 12 million times in the first three weeks of July alone.
President Vladimir Putin has said in the past that simple bans are not the best way to restrict internet use, saying the state needs to be smarter and more subtle to achieve its goals, and that his government was hesitant to ban VPNs outright, fearing it would alienate the many Russians who use them to access Western social media and other sites for entertainment.
A 2017 law banned VPNs from providing access to blocked sites, but imposed an obligation on VPN service companies to comply, an obligation they have largely ignored. However, the government has blocked more than 20 individual VPNs.
Now, activists say, a soft power initiative has been launched to scare russians away from vpns and refer them to government-controlled information resources.
“If you, like me, downloaded a VPN after all the hype, congratulations on getting screwed,” wrote blogger Batya-Goda, with around 46,000 subscribers, on July 6 in a post. social media post now deleted. “I was happy for about 20 minutes, using all my favorite apps. But then everything fell apart – nothing works, other apps crashed, my battery drained like crazy, l “Internet access has slowed down. A friend of mine in IT said that VPNs – especially free ones – sell user data.”
Batya-Goda called VPNs “the problem of 2022”.
Dozens of similar posts decrying VPNs flooded popular social network VKontakte and others, including posts from local government officials.
Nikita Danyuk, an academic and member of the government’s Public Advisory Chamber, was quoted by numerous pro-Kremlin media outlets this month warning of the danger of data theft and denouncing VPNs as “the gray cardinals of the world.” criminal”.
“Russians need to understand that the data VPNs take does not stay in Russia and can end up in different hands, including scam call centers, spy agencies, etc.,” Danyuk said. quoted as saying.
On July 20, the pro-Kremlin Gazeta.ru site quoted Artyom Gellertechnical adviser to the Federation Council and lead designer of the President’s website Kremlin.ru, as claiming that the United States was funding free VPN services in order to gain “access to user data in other countries” and to exercise “ideological influence” on Internet users abroad.
Geller seemed to be referring to the Open Technology Fund (OTF), a US non-profit organization that is a beneficiary of the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM), which also oversees RFE/RL and other US international broadcasters. . According to its website, OTF supports extended internet access“including tools to circumvent website blocks, connection failures and general censorship”.
According to a Reuters report in June, the OTF has provided several million dollars to three VPN companies since the invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
OTF chair Laura Cunningham reportedly said the support was needed because “the Russian government is trying to censor what its citizens can see and say online in order to obscure the truth and silence dissent”.
Russian freedom of information activists are skeptical of the motivations behind what they say is an organized anti-VPN scare campaign.
“I don’t believe the authorities suddenly noticed a lot of data theft and decided to use such a campaign to protect people,” said Stanislav Shakirov, head of internet monitoring group Roskomsvoboda. “They most likely noticed that more and more people are using VPNs and they decided to try this to influence their core constituency – people who don’t know much about technology and can’t tell what’s true and what is not.”
Nevertheless, Shakirov warned, there are free VPNs that mine user data.
“VPN services cost money,” he said. “If customers don’t pay, that means they have to look elsewhere for the money.”
Companies have also reportedly slowed down their free VPNs to direct users to paid services.