January 29, 2023

The Kremlin has spent years building the legal foundation and technical capacity to exert tighter control over the internet. Yet even as Russia blocked certain websites and disrupted access to Twitter last year, few thought it would block major social media platforms and independent news sites outright. While television has always been heavily censored, the internet is less restricted.

Natalia Krapiva, a technology legal counsel for Access Now, an organization that focuses on issues related to online speech, said the March crackdown disrupted the communications and commerce of many otherwise apolitical Russians. VPN use was already high among tech-savvy Russians, but news of blockades and harsh penalties for online protests led more casual internet users to seek ways around the restrictions, she said.

Demand for VPNs has surged in Russia, with downloads up 2,692 percent in March from February, said Simon Migliano, director of research at review site Top10VPN.com. Proton was a popular choice, although slower than some others, but still hovered among the 10 most popular products, he said.

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 Russians are using the internet.

“To read independent news or post pictures, you have to turn on your VPN,” said Viktoriia Safonova, 25, who now delivers food by bicycle in Sweden after fleeing Russia in July. After the invasion, both she and her husband were plagued by anxiety. Independent news and information can be hard to find. Workarounds are often unreliable.

“If the one you’re using is blocked, you’ll have to find another VPN,” Ms Safonova said.

She recalls the paranoia that ensued as new internet restrictions and surveillance came into effect. She and her husband, Artem Nesterenko, worry about whether they can criticize the war online, even on international social networks. He recalled how the police came to check their building after he scrawled “No War” in the elevator. He fears being arrested for what he posts online.

As people turn to VPN services to circumvent blocks, Proton struggles to keep up. Over a weekend in March, engineers scrambled to buy and configure more than 20 new servers to avoid bringing down the entire network.

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