In the week from the Kremlin facebook blocked, hundreds of thousands of Russians have tried to circumvent the ban by using a virtual private network. A VPN creates an encrypted connection between your device and a remote server, which can be anywhere in the world, so you can theoretically access sites that are blocked in your country.
Nikolay*, a Russian now living in the EU, says his friends back home bought a VPN so they could communicate with him and others out of fear that access to the outside world might be limited. “There is a lot of talk that people should get these VPNs as soon as possible,” says Nikolay.
Over the past week, VPNs have been in high demand in Russia. Internet Searches for VPN services in the country almost doubled between March 4 and 10 compared to the previous week, according to Top10VPN, a UK company that reviews and recommends private network services. There were at least 260,000 searches on March 5 alone, the day after Facebook was banned.
“By replacing your Russian IP address with that of the remote server, which will typically be in another country, using a VPN means that Russians can access internet services that are blocking Russian traffic,” says Simon Migliano, head of research at Top10VPN.
If Ukraine is widely perceived to be winning the information war, then within Russia the battle is, in part, about viewing content produced outside its borders. In response to a move to restrict access to its service in the country, Twitter this week launched a new privacy protected version of his site so that the Russians could access it more easily. Russian prosecutors on Friday ratcheted up the pressure on Western social media by designating Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta, the owner of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, as an “extremist organization.”
There are also concerns that access to wide swathes of the Internet, even through private networks, will become more difficult in Russia. Cogent Communications, which helps form the backbone of the global Internet by distributing 25% of its traffic, withdrew all Russian-licensed services after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Cogent CEO Dave Schaeffer says the company was concerned that its larger international network connections were “suitable for use by the Russian government for offensive cyber activities.”
Lumen Technologies, an American company in the same industry, also pulled out of Russia this week but tried to play down the move, saying it provided an “extremely small” service in Russia and still helped internet service providers route traffic into the country.
NetBlocks, which monitors global internet connectivity, says there has yet to be a “significant dent” in internet performance in Russia. But moves like Cogent’s will not ease concerns among Russians that the country’s access to the outside world could be hampered by the conflict.
The loss of international Internet capacity could threaten access to Western news services, adds Doug Madory, director of Internet analytics at Kentik, a network monitoring company. “The loss of international bandwidth capacity may negatively affect the average Russian user’s ability to connect to Internet resources outside the country. [like western news media]. Although to what extent remains to be seen.
Western media platforms blocked by Russia turned to Tor, a volunteer-run network, to provide an alternative means of accessing their content. Tor allows people to access sites anonymously. This week, Twitter launched a version of its service using Tor, and the BBC has also reminded Russian viewers that it is available via Tor, as is Facebook – and the Guardian.
Demand for VPNs by people living in Russia could also reflect fears that the country is about to cut itself off from the global internet altogether or erect a Chinese-style firewall to block access to sites deemed undesirable. . In 2019, Vladimir Putin pointed out that Russia could seek a way to isolate itself from the Internet, saying that “we must create a segment [of the internet] that does not depend on anyone”, a comment followed months later by the Kremlin confirming that it had tried a domestic alternative to the global Internet.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann), which coordinates the Internet’s global address book, last week rejected a call by Ukraine to isolate Russia by shutting down its web domains. Nonetheless, moves are underway to change Russia’s internet infrastructure. This week the Russian government ordered state agencies and telecommunications services to use DNS servers, crucial for allowing browsers to find websites, located in Russia, although the country’s deputy digital minister said “there were no plans to shut down the internet from the inside”, citing concerns about cyber attacks.
“While Russia is certainly capable of isolating itself from the global Internet, the economic and social cost would be severe,” Migliano said. “What is more likely is that the Kremlin will try to copy China’s ‘great firewall’ and strictly control all Internet traffic in and out of the country.”
However, the availability of Western news and platforms in Russia must also be matched by a willingness to access them. Justin Crow, a researcher at the University of Sussex’s School of Engineering and Computer Science, says the creation of Tor sites and the availability of VPNs does not mean that Russians will take advantage of an increasingly limited opportunity to access alternative viewpoints.
“All of this also ignores the tangled questions around people’s willingness to put themselves at risk. How much complexity and effort does the average citizen [perhaps one who has only just started to question Putin’s rule] willingly tolerate finding information that contradicts the official narrative, when the potential repercussions are so dire.”
* The name has been changed for this article.