VPNs fight to help Russians resist Kremlin controls

Kenneth R. Rosen

 

In this edition, digital internet access firms are fighting hard to stay online in Russia.

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THE STORY

After the destructive earthquake in Turkey last week, criticism of the country’s emergency response services led Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to block access to Twitter for several hours. Virtual private networks (VPNs) became an essential way to maintain the flow of information and, in this case, criticism. 

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, VPN services have garnered substantial new import, support and funding, while also developing new technologies to limit internet controls. In war, all sides seek to control information. From the earliest days of the invasion, Russia Today, the Russian state-funded news outlet and television channel, was blocked across Europe. And in Russia, any mention of the conflict beyond the spurious phrase “special military operation” was grounds for censorship or even the complete dismantling of media enterprises. 

Heavy censorship or restricted access to information pushes people towards VPNs, regardless of the legal and data security risks. In March, after Russia interrupted access to a number of websites and Twitter, including the potential to block independent news and social media websites, demand for VPNs surged within the country by 2,692 percent, according to Top10VPN, which monitors VPN usage globally. 

Access to VPNs are a vital lifeline for Russians seeking information. Blocking these services makes dissent more difficult and makes people more susceptible to propaganda. Since Russia launched its invasion last February, you could argue that alongside ground operations, a new cyberwar is raging and virtual private networks (VPNs) are on the frontline as cudgels against online repression. 

Governments will always have the upper hand in a battle with VPN service providers — an outright ban, as in China, or carefully crafted restrictive rules as in India and Russia are hard for companies to circumvent — but service providers are no longer just passive providers of access.  

“I would say a VPN is like a protective suit against radiation,” Artem Nesterenko told me. He left Russia for Sweden in July. “You can wear it and walk safely through spaces with propaganda and misdirection from the government.”

WHY IT MATTERS

Before the war VPNs and decentralized networks were primarily used by remote workers, travelers and expats for accessing entertainment or banking services. People in countries with restrictive internet controls found VPNs to be a potent defense against government interference. In 2022, according to one report, the countries in which the largest proportions of the public resorted to VPNs were the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Singapore. 

Russians have since the invasion began used VPNs to help them learn about the war’s origins and the real time impacts on civilians in Ukraine. But the Kremlin soon began to block popular VPNs and one effect of sanctions was that Russians could not use their credit cards to buy access to VPN services. Free VPN services tend to be less robust than paid services, more open to malware and easier for authorities to block.

Earlier this month, Snowflake, a VPN which relies on a network of some 115,000 servers operated by volunteers, launched a new, faster VPN service backed by $1 million in funding. And Proton has, perhaps even more than most others, stayed on the offensive, trying to find ways for customers to access their services despite the efforts of governments to restrict access. Which is how I found myself recently in Switzerland.

A mist hung about the unassuming glass and steel building. The corporate park in Geneva, was undergoing construction but on this day the construction equipment lay there unused. Despite the quiet and the seeming calm, inside the building a team of 25 developers for Proton were fighting to resist the Kremlin’s effort to censor the internet across Russia. Proton has 1.4 million daily users inside Russia. (Full disclosure: I am a paid Proton subscriber).  

Until last February, Proton’s users were mostly based in the United States, using the company’s VPN service to encrypt and obscure their internet traffic, or, for some living abroad, to access streaming services and television back home. Then, after Russia invaded Ukraine, and with recent anti-government protests in Iran, use of the service in Iran and Russia surpassed that of North America. 

A VPN redirects traffic to servers outside a user’s home country, exchanging a Russian IP address for an IP address in any of more than 60 different countries where Proton has servers. For Russians seeking media outside the Kremlin’s ambit, it was a blessing. Until Proton’s servers were blocked, too. Each time the VPN team constructed digital loopholes to avoid the Kremlin’s blockade, the Kremlin quickly found its own work around and those who were using Proton would have no access to outside news or social media. 

“This is a game that is usually played in the shadows,” Andy Yen, the CEO of Proton, told me. “What the war in Ukraine did was push this out in the open.” Proton was blocked by the Kremlin in June. Since then, the company has developed a protocol known as Stealth, first tested in Iran, then launched globally in October.

“It’s a continuous fight, but the effectiveness can vary depending on the network,” Yen told me. “The objective is to make the cost very high.” Meaning, if the government censors’ means of blocking the internet is by shutting it down completely, that impacts the regimes economy and overall stability more than simply blocking an internet address.

THE FALLOUT

Last year, in September, at the International Telecommunications Union’s quadrennial conference, a significant threat to a globally-open internet was dismantled. China and Russia had backed candidates who failed to become elected as the organization’s next secretary-general. The two nations’ push to centralize control of internet resources within a nation’s borders is exactly what VPNs and other decentralized platforms are seeking to undermine. Services like the Tor Project (a nonprofit decentralized internet for which, as another disclosure, I freely operate public and private nodes), Snowflake and VPNs such as Proton are becoming more central to efforts to maintain internet freedoms.

As tech companies reevaluate their roles and responsibilities in global conflicts, disrupting authoritarian controls over the internet has become a cottage industry with newfound investors and supporters. But using a VPN is still largely for those who are technology savvy, adaptable and willing to put up with the sometimes, slower speeds. 

Nesterenko, the young Russian who left for Sweden, told me that older members of his family find the technology too cumbersome. When websites were blocked in Russia, they stopped using those sites and using social media altogether, effectively conceding control over what they could watch, listen to and read to the authorities.

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