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Russians seek refuge from online censorship.

Image credit-Hindustan Times

Since the outbreak of war, Russians have increasingly turned to software solutions aimed at evading online censorship measures implemented by the government of Vladimir Putin. Prior to recent events, Russia's most popular apps mirrored those commonly used in the West, with Zoom for conferencing, Telegram for messaging, and Instagram for social media being among the top downloads. However, the landscape has swiftly shifted, with the emergence of tools designed to obscure users' locations now dominating the app stores. On March 8th, three of the top five apps in the Apple store were dedicated to disguising user locations, while Google's Play store similarly featured three such apps in its top five. These tools, including virtual private networks (VPNs), have seen a surge in popularity amidst a crackdown on online freedoms by the Russian government.

The rise in demand for privacy software can be directly attributed to a tightening of online censorship measures by the Russian government, which has escalated following recent geopolitical tensions. The blocking of Facebook access on March 4th came in response to the platform's imposition of restrictions on Russian state-controlled media. Similarly, Russian users have encountered difficulties accessing Twitter, while TikTok has prohibited the uploading of videos in response to legislation criminalizing the dissemination of unauthorized information about the war. Major media platforms like Netflix have also suspended their services in the country. In this context, privacy apps offer users a means of circumventing these restrictions and accessing blocked content.

The surge in VPN downloads serves as a barometer of public concern over internet access during times of crisis. Data from Top10VPN, a VPN review website, reveals that on March 5th, online searches for VPNs in Russia peaked at nearly 12 times the average, reflecting heightened anxiety over online censorship. A similar trend was observed in Ukraine, where demand for VPNs surged to seven times the usual level on March 2nd. The strain on Ukrainian servers during wartime has exacerbated difficulties in accessing popular social networking platforms like Telegram without the use of VPNs.

Notably, spikes in demand for privacy software have been observed in other countries facing government crackdowns on online freedoms. In Myanmar, for instance, demand for VPNs rose by 53% above the average after the military junta proposed updated cyber legislation in early 2022, which included the criminalization of VPNs. Meanwhile, in China, a long-standing proponent of internet censorship, the government compelled Apple to remove VPNs from its app store in 2017. However, Apple's response to censorship differs between markets; while it complied with China's demands, it opted to suspend hardware sales in Russia on March 1st, signaling a willingness to take a bolder stance in smaller markets where its presence is less significant.

Feb. 7, 2024 2:53 p.m. 1181

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