The Kremlin has spent years building the legal foundation and technological capabilities to better control the Internet. But even when Russia blocked certain websites and cut access to Twitter last year, few thought it would outright block major social media platforms and independent news websites. While television has always been heavily censored, the internet was less restricted.
The crackdown in March interrupted communication and trade for many otherwise apolitical Russians, said Natalia Krapiva, technical legal counsel at Access Now, a group that focuses on online speech-related issues. VPN use was already high among tech-savvy Russians, she said, but the blockades and news of harsh punishments for online protest led even more casual internet users to look for ways around the restrictions.
Demand for VPNs in Russia skyrocketed, with March downloads up 2,692 percent from February, said Simon Migliano, head of research for the review site Top10VPN.com. Proton was a popular choice, he said, hovering among the top 10 most popular products despite being slower than some of the other choices.
Since then, VPNs have become a way of life for many. Roskomsvoboda, a Russian civil society group advocating internet freedom, estimates that a quarter of Russia’s population uses one.
“To easily read independent news or post a photo, you had to open your VPN,” says Viktoriia Safonova, 25, who now delivers food by bicycle in Sweden after fleeing Russia in July. Both she and her husband were haunted by fear after the invasion. Finding independent news and information was difficult. Workarounds were often not reliable.
“If the one you’re using is blocked, you should find another VPN,” Ms Safonova said.
She remembered the paranoia that set in when new internet restrictions and surveillance came into effect. She and her husband, Artem Nesterenko, worried whether they could criticize the war online, even on international social networks. He remembered how the police had come to check their building after he had scribbled “No to war” in the elevator. He feared being arrested for things he posted online.
As people turned to VPN services to avoid the blocks, Proton struggled to keep up. Over a weekend in March, engineers scrambled to buy and configure more than 20 new servers to avoid a crash of the entire network.