Inside the face-off between Russia and a small internet company
The Kremlin has spent years building the legal basis and technological capabilities to control the internet more closely. Yet even though Russia blocked some websites and shut down access to Twitter last year, few people thought it would block major social media platforms and independent news sites outright. While television has always been heavily censored, the internet has been less restricted.
The March crackdown halted communications and commerce for many otherwise apolitical Russians, said Natalia Krapiva, technology legal adviser at Access Now, a group focused on online speech issues. VPN use was already high among tech-savvy Russians, she said, but lockdowns and news of tough penalties for online protests have led even more casual netizens to look for ways to circumvent limitations.
VPN demand has surged in Russia, with downloads in March jumping 2,692% from February, said Simon Migliano, head of research for review site Top10VPN.com. Proton was a popular choice, he said, hovering among the top 10 products despite being slower than some other choices.
Since then, VPNs have become a way of life for many. Roskomsvoboda, a Russian civil society group focused on internet freedom, estimates that a quarter of the Russian population uses one.
“To just read independent news or post a photo, you had to open your VPN,” said Viktoriia Safonova, 25, who now delivers food by bike to Sweden after fleeing Russia in July. She and her husband were plagued with anxiety after the invasion. Finding independent news and information was difficult. Workarounds were often unreliable.
“If the one you’re using is blocked, you need to find another VPN,” Safonova said.
She recalled the paranoia that set in when new internet restrictions and surveillance came into effect. She and her husband, Artem Nesterenko, worried about whether they could criticize the war online, even on international social media. He recalled how the police came to check on their building after he scribbled “No to war” in the elevator. He feared being arrested for things he posted online.
As people turned to VPN services to avoid blocks, Proton struggled to keep up. Over a weekend in March, engineers rushed to buy and configure more than 20 new servers to avoid a crash of his entire network.
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