VPN Demand in Russia Soars Over 1,000 Percent As Online Censorship Grows

Russians are flocking to mobile app stores in order to download Virtual Private Network (VPN) services that they can use to roam the web freely.

In the ten days between February 24 and March 5, the top 10 VPN apps on Apple's App Store and Google Play saw more than 4.6 million downloads according to app tracker AppFigures, which said this figure is a conservative one.

In addition, London-based VPN research group Top10VPN said that as of Wednesday morning, that between February 24 and March 8 there was a peak 1,092 percent increase in demand for VPNs compared to the pre-invasion average.

Amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the country's government has sought to restrict its citizens' access to social media.

Last week, Russian state communications regulator Roskomnadzor said it had decided to block access to Facebook. This was in response to what it called "discrimination against Russia media and information resources" after the social media site restricted access to various Russian media outlets.

Facebook said it had restricted access to the Russian state outlets in response to European government requests.

At the same time, Russia's restriction over social media comes amid domestic unrest over the country's ongoing invasion of Ukraine which, between the start of the invasion and March 7, has led to 474 civilian deaths in Ukraine. This includes 29 children, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on Tuesday.

Russia has cracked down on what Russians can say about the country's armed forces, enacting a law against spreading what the government deems to be "fake news," punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Social media blocks could be part of this censorship, but other online information sources like Wikipedia—which Russia threatened to block unless it deleted information about the invasion of Ukraine, which Russia deemed to be false—and news sources like the BBC, have also been targeted by censorship officials.

Amid this backdrop of online censorship VPNs are in high demand in Russia. A VPN is a service that helps people to use the internet anonymously by hiding the user's IP address, which identifies a device. VPNs may also allow users to bypass restrictions on websites or use streaming services that are only available in other countries—though authoritarian governments may be able to detect when someone is using a VPN, according to German news outlet DW.

Jessica Brandt, policy director for the Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technology Initiative at the Brookings Institution, told CNN Business that the Russia-Ukraine conflict is a "flashpoint" for western tech firms operating in Russia.

She said that while the Kremlin may stand to gain from controlling the narrative within the country, "it's the Russian people that will lose enormously if they are stripped of access to non-government news and information and denied means to organize."

Someone using phone in Moscow
A person uses a mobile phone in Moscow, Russia, in January, 2021. Amid Russian censorship, VPN use has soared in recent weeks. Kirill Kudryavstev/AFP/Getty