VPN usage has increased recently, however, most notably in societies, and countries, where citizens experience political oppression and media blackouts. With the divide between civilians and governments widening and becoming more apparent, many people are turning to VPNs to help protect their data and security, but the important question is: Is this a sign that VPN usage will increase in Russia?
In the past week Russia’s second-largest internet provider, Cogent Communications, cut off Russian websites. Other companies, including Meta and Twitter, have also restricted access to Russian state-based media outlets to avoid misinformation being given to the public. ProtonVPN’s CTO commented on this topic by saying; ‘the internet has given authoritarian governments the greatest tool for censorship the world has ever seen and the number of shutdowns and blocks has been increasing year-on-year. ProtonVPN has long stood up for the rights of activists, campaigners, and normal people around the world fighting censorship and oppression.’
But which countries have seen the most VPN downloads as a result of such internet control and is this a sign that VPNs will increase in Russia?ProtonVPN have looked back on some of their biggest VPN surges over the past 18 months to reveal why and where they occurred;
1) Zambia saw a surge of 120 times in August 2021
According to ProtonVPN data, Zambia saw a surge of 120 times more than their average VPN sign-ups back in August. This increase links directly to the Zambian presidential election between former President Edgar Lungu and his main opposition, (now-President) Hakainde Hichilema. The election created ripples of tension throughout the country, including a military and internet crackdown* that blocked Zambians from accessing social media sites including Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
The block was directed at internet providers and private networks, under the guise of stopping misinformation. Much of the population, however, interpreted such measures as a clampdown on information and speech. Many Zambians quickly resorted to VPNs to get around blocks on websites and social networks and to find voting information.
2) There were 200 times more VPN downloads in Burma in February 2021
Military coups and VPN surges are especially related. The reason for this is that when the military obtains a blank check to rule society, one of its first actions is taking unilateral control over the airwaves and internet. It’s during these times that VPNs become a lifeline to the outside world, often serving as the only way for people to access external information, view independent news, and communicate with others for help and support.
On February 4th, 2021, the analysis saw a huge surge in Myanmar/Burma with 200 times more sign-ups (followed by another two weeks of high sign-up rates). The flurry of sign-ups came on the heels of a series of high-profile detainments, including Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, and other political figures. A senior general of the military, Min Aung Hlaing, quickly took over all executive, legislative, and judicial powers and soon after blocked social media sites such as Facebook, Messenger, and WhatsApp. Twitter and Instagram were also blocked days later when the military realized protestors were using these networks to share information. With so many messaging systems taken down, citizens turned to VPNs to access the internet, organize protests, and communicate with loved ones.
3) Tanzania saw a surge in VPN use that was 400 times their average in October 2020
The people of Tanzania turned to VPNs en masse during October 2020 in response to several authoritarian measures being newly legislated. Many of the laws had been on the books for several months and could be seen as fairly predictable to any observer of backsliding (restrictions on free speech, limits on peaceful assembly, blatant controls on journalists and their reporting, and so forth). But October marked the country’s upcoming general election and was preceded by a series of highly visible arrests and clampdowns to enforce the laws in favor of incumbent President John Magufuli.
Proton’s data shows a surge of 80 times their average VPN sign-up rate on October 19th, roughly a week before election day. Tanzania then saw an even bigger surge of 400 times their average number of VPN sign-ups on October 27th, just a day before their elections. People turned to VPNs for online safety and out of fear of prosecution. Magufuli won the highly-criticized election with over 84% of the votes before passing away in March 2021.
4) Senegal VPN downloads were 400 times the average in March 2021
March 2021 saw a period of huge unrest in Senegal. The region is known to be volatile, but the assembly of supporters for opposition leader Ousmane Sonko along with ongoing social issues led to an increase in violent protests and mass demonstrations.
Senegal authorities responded by restricting internet access through March. ProtonVPN’s data shows a hugely significant surge in sign-ups (400 times more than their average) on March 5th, when reports started emerging about the lack of internet and blocking of social media platforms in the region.
5) Azerbaijan saw the biggest VPN surge in September 2020
Azerbaijan saw the largest surge in sign-ups that ProtonVPN witnessed over the past 18 months. The country experienced a whopping 500 times increase in sign-ups from the end of September 2020 through October of that year before a huge drop in November when it has been reported that social media and other platforms were back online.
The blockage of social media occurred in September when tensions began to rise again between Azerbaijan and the Armenian forces. There have been standoffs and outbreaks of conflict between the two countries for the past three decades, but disputes have been taken online in recent years. Disputes in the digital space have intensified due to state-sponsored/organic influence campaigns that are then amplified to a larger audience.
As a security measure, the Ministry of Transport, Communications, and Technology declared a social media shutdown in order to ‘prevent large-scale provocations from Armenia’. VPN usage therefore dramatically increased in the region.
Whilst there is currently little data to show how VPN use has changed in Russia, the above suggests that more people will turn to VPNs for security, privacy, and to ultimately keep their data safe, during these unsettling times. VPNs are only one tool for online safety and can essentially allow people to access information regardless of the measures that their countries put in place.