Russians seek to evade social media ban with virtual private networks

After Russia put a block on access to Facebook and Twitter, internet searches for ways around it shot up

In the week since the Kremlin blocked Facebook, hundreds of thousands of Russians have sought to circumvent the ban using a virtual private network. A VPN creates an encrypted connection between your device and a remote server, which can be anywhere in the world, so in theory you can access sites blocked in your country.

Nikolay*, a Russian who now lives in the EU, says his friends back home bought a VPN in order to communicate with him and others amid fears that access to the outside world could become limited. “There is a lot of talk that people should get these VPNs as soon as possible,” says Nikolay.

Over the past week VPNs have been in strong demand in Russia. Internet searches for VPN services in the country almost doubled between 4 March and 10 March compared with the previous week, according to Top10VPN, a UK company that reviews and recommends private network services. There were at least 260,000 searches on 5 March alone, the day after Facebook was banned.

“By replacing their Russian IP address with that of the remote server, which will typically be in another country, using a VPN means Russians can access internet services that are blocking Russian traffic,” says Simon Migliano, head of research at Top10VPN.

If Ukraine is widely perceived to be winning the information war, then inside Russia the battle is, in part, about viewing content produced outside its borders. Responding to a move to restrict access to its service in the country, Twitter this week launched a new privacy-protected version of its site so Russians could more easily access it. On Friday, Russian prosecutors increased the pressure on western social media by moving to designate Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta, the owner of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, as an “extremist organisation”.

There are also concerns that access to vast swathes of the wider internet, even via private networks, is going to become more difficult in Russia. Cogent Communications, which helps form the backbone of the global internet by distributing 25% of its traffic, withdrew all Russian-licensed services after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Cogent’s chief executive, Dave Schaeffer, says the company was concerned that its biggest international network connections would be “suitable for the Russian government to use for offensive cyber activities”.

Lumen Technologies, a US firm in the same industry, also withdrew from Russia this week but sought to play down the move, saying it provided an “extremely small” service in Russia and still helped internet service providers route traffic into the country.

NetBlocks, which monitors global internet connectivity, says there has not been a “significant dent” yet in Russia’s internet performance. But moves like Cogent’s will not ease concerns among Russians that the country’s access to the outside world could be hampered by the conflict.

The loss of international internet capacity could threaten access to western news services, adds Doug Madory, director of internet analysis at Kentik, a network monitoring company. “The loss of international bandwidth capacity may negatively affect the average Russian user’s ability to connect with internet resources outside the country [like western news media]. Although to what extent remains to be seen.”

Western media platforms blocked by Russia have turned to Tor, a volunteer-run network, to provide an alternative means of accessing their content. Tor allows people to access sites anonymously. This week Twitter launched a version of its service using Tor and the BBC has also reminded Russian viewers that it is available via Tor, as is Facebook – and the Guardian.

The demand for VPNs from people living in Russia could also reflect a fear that the country is about to cut itself off from the global internet entirely or erect a China-style firewall to block access to sites deemed undesirable. In 2019, Vladimir Putin signalled that Russia could seek a form of internet isolation, saying “we must create a segment [of the internet] which depends on nobody”, a comment followed months later by the Kremlin confirming it had tested a domestic alternative to the global internet.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann), which coordinates the internet’s global address book, last week rejected a call from Ukraine to cut off Russia by shutting down its web domains. Nonetheless, moves are afoot to change Russia’s internet infrastructure. This week the Russian government ordered state bodies and telecoms services to use DNS servers, crucial for allowing browsers to find websites, located in Russia, although the country’s deputy digital minister said there were “no plans to disconnect the internet from inside”, instead citing concerns about cyber-attacks.

“While Russia is certainly capable of cutting itself off from the global internet, the economic and social cost would be grave,” said Migliano. “What’s more likely is that the Kremlin tries to copy China’s ‘great firewall’ and strictly control all internet traffic coming in and out of the country.”

The availability of western news and platforms in Russia also needs to be coupled with willingness to access them, however. Justin Crow, a researcher at the University of Sussex’s school of engineering and informatics, says the setting up of Tor sites and availability of VPNs does not mean Russians will seize a narrowing opportunity to access alternative viewpoints.

“All of this also ignores the entangled questions around people’s willingness to expose themselves to risk. How much complexity and effort does the average citizen [perhaps one who has only just started to question Putin’s rule] willingly endure to find information that contradicts the official narrative, when the potential repercussions are so severe.”

* The name has been changed for this article.


Dan Milmo Global technology editor

The GuardianTramp

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