But despite Putin’s efforts to restrict social media and information within his borders, a growing number of Russian Internet users appear determined to access outside sources and bypass the Kremlin’s restrictions.
To defeat Russian Internet censorship, many are turning to specialized circumvention technologies that are widely used in other countries with limited online freedoms, including China and Iran. Digital rights experts say Putin may have inadvertently engineered a massive, permanent shift in digital literacy in Russia that will work against the regime for years to come.
Since invading Ukraine, Russians have been flocking to virtual private networks (VPNs) and encrypted messaging apps, tools that can be used to access blocked websites like Facebook or to securely share news about the war in Ukraine without encountering new, draconian laws banning what Russian authorities consider “false” claims about the conflict.
In the week since February 28, Russian internet users have downloaded the top five VPN apps on the Apple and Google app stores a total of 2.7 million times, according to research firm SensorTower, almost three times more than a week earlier. .
This growth is in line with what some VPN providers are reporting. Swiss company Proton, for example, told CNN Business that registrations from Russia increased by 1,000% this month. (However, the company declined to provide a base figure for comparison.)
VPN providers are just one of the types of applications that are in great demand in Russia. Since March 1, a number of messaging apps, including Meta Messenger and WhatsApp services, have seen a gradual increase in traffic, said internet infrastructure company Cloudflare, a trend that is in line with the increase in traffic on global social media platforms such as Twitter, YouTube, Instagram. . and TikTok.
But arguably the fastest growing messaging app in Russia might be Signal’s encrypted messaging app. Signal was downloaded 132,000 times in the country last week, up 28% from a week earlier, according to SensorTower. Russian internet traffic to Signal has “significantly increased” since March 1, Cloudflare told CNN Business.
Growth in other private messaging apps like Telegram has slowed this week, according to SensorTower, but has been downloaded more than half a million times over that period.
And Lantern, a peer-to-peer tool that routes Internet traffic through government firewalls, started noticing more downloads from Russia about two months ago, says Sasha Meinrath, a professor of communications at Pennsylvania State University who sits on the board of Lantern’s parent company. , Bold new software.
According to Meinrath, downloads of Lantern from Russia alone have increased by 2,000% in the past two months, with the service growing from 5,000 monthly users in Russia to more than 120,000. In comparison, according to Meinrath, Lantern has between 2 million and 3 million users. around the world, mainly in China and Iran.
“Tor, Lantern, everything VPN, everything that hides who you are or where you are going – Telegram – everything, downloads are skyrocketing,” Meinrath said. “And it’s a download, so people on Telegram use that to share notes about what else you should download.”
According to Meinrath, the most tech-savvy and privacy-conscious users know how to combine several tools together to maximize their protection — for example, using Lantern to bypass government blocks, as well as using Tor to anonymize their activities.
Information technology war
Natalya Krapiva, a lawyer with digital rights group Access Now, said some Russian Internet users have been using secure means of communication for years since the Russian government began restricting online freedom more than a decade ago.
According to Krapiva, the Russian government has tried to block Tor and VPN providers in the past. But it wasn’t very successful, she says, due to Tor’s open, decentralized design, which depends on many distributed servers, and the willingness of new VPN providers to fill the gap left by the banned ones. Russia is now facing an intensifying cat-and-mouse game, Krapiva said.
But while Putin may not be able to completely turn off censorship-resistant technologies, Kremlin supporters may still try to draw them into a wider information war in Russia and prevent implementation.
For February. On January 28, Signal said it was aware of rumors that the platform had been compromised by a hack, a claim the company vehemently denied. While not directly blaming Russia, Signal said it suspected the rumors were spread as “part of a coordinated disinformation campaign designed to encourage people to use less secure alternatives.”
Signal’s statement highlights how quickly the information war has evolved from news coming from Ukraine to the services people use to access and discuss that news.
If only a small minority of Russians end up using circumvention technologies to gain access to outside information, this could allow Putin to dominate the information space at home. And while there are many signs of growing interest in these tools, it appears to be in the thousands, not the millions, at least for now.
“The concern, of course, is that most people, the general population, may not be aware of these tools,” Krapiva said. “[They] can be difficult if your digital literacy is quite low, so it will be difficult to get the majority of the population to actually adopt these tools. But I’m sure there will be more education and I want to keep hope that they will endure.”
Normalization of censorship-resistant technologies
Some digital rights experts say it’s important that these tools are used for both normal and innocuous activities on the Internet, and not just for potentially disruptive activities. Performing mundane tasks such as checking email, accessing streaming movies, or chatting with friends using these technologies makes it harder for authoritarian regimes to justify crackdowns and can make attempts to violate government restrictions on free speech and access more difficult to detect.
“The more common users use censorship-resistant technology for everyday activities like unlocking movies, the better,” said John Scott-Railton, a security and disinformation researcher at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab.
And this may be just the beginning. Meinrath said government restrictions are likely to prompt not only greater adoption of bypass tools in Russia, but further research and development of new tools by Russia’s highly skilled and tech-savvy population.
“We are at the beginning of a J-curve,” Meinrath said, adding: “This is a one-way transformation in Russia.”