By Brian Fung, CNN Business
A digital Iron Curtain may be descending on Russia, as President Vladimir Putin struggles to control the narrative about his war in Ukraine. The Kremlin has already moved to block Facebook and Twitter, and its latest step in that direction came Friday as the government announced plans to block Instagram in the country, as well.
But despite Putin’s efforts to clamp down on social media and information within his borders, a growing number of Russian internet users appear determined to access outside sources and circumvent the Kremlin’s restrictions.
To defeat Russia’s internet censorship, many are turning to specialized circumvention technology that’s been widely used in other countries with restricted online freedoms, including China and Iran. Digital rights experts say Putin may have inadvertently sparked a massive, permanent shift in digital literacy in Russia that will work against the regime for years.
Since the invasion of Ukraine, Russians have been flocking to virtual private networks (VPNs) and encrypted messaging apps, tools that can be used to access blocked websites such as Facebook or safely share news about the war in Ukraine without running afoul of new, draconian laws banning what Russian authorities consider to be “fake” claims about the conflict.
A rapid rise in downloads
During the week of February 28, Russian internet users downloaded the five leading VPN apps on Apple and Google’s app stores a total of 2.7 million times, a nearly three-fold increase in demand compared to the week before, according to the market research firm SensorTower.
That growth dovetails with what some VPN providers have reported. Switzerland-based Proton, for example, told CNN Business it has seen a 1,000% spike in signups from Russia this month. (The company declined to provide a baseline figure for comparison, however.)
VPN providers are just one type of application seeing higher uptake in Russia. Since March 1, a range of messaging apps including Meta’s Messenger and WhatsApp services have seen a gradual increase in traffic, said the internet infrastructure company Cloudflare, a trend consistent with an increase in traffic to global social media platforms such as Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and TikTok.
But perhaps the fastest-growing messaging app in Russia may be the encrypted messaging app Signal. SensorTower said Signal was downloaded 132,000 times in the country last week, an increase of more than 28% from the week before. Russian internet traffic to Signal has seen “significant growth” since March 1, Cloudflare told CNN Business.
Other private messaging apps, such as Telegram, saw a relative slowdown in growth that week but still witnessed more than half a million downloads in that timeframe, SensorTower said.
In recent weeks, Russian internet users also appear to have increased their reliance on Tor, a service that anonymizes internet browsing by scrambling a user’s traffic and bouncing it through multiple servers around the world. Beginning the day of the Ukraine invasion, Tor’s metrics page estimated that thousands more Russian users were accessing the web through secret servers connected to Tor’s decentralized network.
Tor users got a helping hand from Twitter on Tuesday, as the social network — which has been partially blocked in Russia following the invasion — added the ability to access its platform through a specialized website designed for Tor users. Facebook, for its part, has had its own Tor site since 2014.
And Lantern, a peer-to-peer tool that routes internet traffic around government firewalls, began seeing more downloads from Russia starting about two months ago, said Sascha Meinrath, a communications professor at Penn State University who sits on the board of Lantern’s parent company, Brave New Software.
Lantern has seen a 2,000% increase in downloads from Russia alone over the past two months, Meinrath said, with the service going from 5,000 monthly users in Russia to more than 120,000. By comparison, Meinrath said, Lantern has between 2 million and 3 million users globally, mostly in China and Iran.
“Tor, Lantern, all the VPNs, anything that’s masking who you are or where you’re going —Telegram — everything, downloads are increasing dramatically,” said Meinrath. “And it’s a bootstrapping thing, so the people that are on Telegram, they’re using that to swap notes about what else you should download.”
The most tech-savvy and privacy-conscious users, said Meinrath, know how to combine multiple tools together to maximize their protection — for example, by using Lantern to get around government blocks while also using Tor to anonymize their activity.
The war for information technology
The growing prominence of some of these tools highlights the stakes for Russian internet users as the Kremlin has detained thousands of people for protesting the war in Ukraine. And it contrasts with the steps Russia has taken to clamp down on social media, from blocking Facebook entirely to passing a law that threatens up to 15 years behind bars for those who share what the Kremlin deems “fake” information about the war.
Natalia Krapiva, a lawyer at the digital rights group Access Now, said some Russian internet users have been using secure communications tools for years, as the Russian government began restricting internet freedoms more than a decade ago.
In the past, the Russian government has tried to block Tor and VPN providers, Krapiva said. But it hasn’t been very successful, she said, due to Tor’s open, decentralized design that hinges on many distributed servers and the willingness of new VPN providers to fill the gap left behind by banned ones. What Russia faces now is an intensifying game of cat and mouse, Krapiva said.
But while Putin may not be able to shut down censorship-resistant technologies entirely, supporters of the Kremlin can still try to drag it into Russia’s wider information war and hinder adoption.
On February. 28, Signal said it was aware of rumors suggesting the platform had been compromised in a hack — a claim the company flatly denied. Without blaming Russia directly, Signal said it suspected the rumors were being spread as “part of a coordinated misinformation campaign meant to encourage people to use less secure alternatives.”
Signal’s claim underscores how quickly the information war has evolved from being about the news coming out of Ukraine to being about the services people use to access and discuss that news.
If only a small minority of Russians end up embracing circumvention technologies to get access to outside information, it may allow Putin to dominate the information space within the country. And while there are many indications of growing interest in these tools, it appears to be on the scale of thousands, not millions, at least for now.
“The concern, of course, is that the majority of the people, the general population, might not necessarily know about those tools,” said Krapiva. “[They] can be complex if your digital literacy is quite low, so it’s going to remain a challenge to have a bigger section of the population really adopt these tools. But I’m sure there will be more education and I want to remain hopeful they will persevere.”
Normalizing censorship-resistant tech
Some digital rights experts say it’s important for these tools to be used for ordinary and innocuous internet activities, too, not just potentially subversive ones. Performing mundane tasks like checking email, accessing streaming movies or talking to friends using these technologies makes it harder for authoritarian regimes to justify cracking down on them, and can make it more difficult to identify efforts to violate government restrictions on speech and access.
“The more that regular users use censorship-resistant technology for everyday activities like unblocking movies, the better,” said John Scott-Railton, a security and disinformation researcher at The University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab.
And this may only be the start. Meinrath said the government restrictions will likely trigger not just broader adoption of circumvention tools in Russia but also further research and development of new tools by Russia’s highly skilled and tech-savvy population.
“We’re at the beginning of a J-curve,” Meinrath said, adding: “This is a one-way transformation in Russia.”
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