New analysis reveals link between censorship and VPN surges

ProtonVPN releases biggest consumer upticks of last 18 months, offers tips for increasing online privacy 

VPN usage is increasing around the world, but especially in societies where people endure political oppression, social media blackouts, and civil wars. With trust in government eroding and democratic backsliding increasing, more and more individuals are turning towards VPNs to help protect their data and security. 

Recent history has been no exception. Example after example shows that global instability is rising, which often corresponds with drastic measures by governments to control information (and — by extension — people). At the top of that list is online censorship through internet crackdowns and shutdowns. Authoritarians have become skilled at blocking communications platforms, particular websites, or even the whole internet. A strong VPN service allows individuals to get around these measures, enabling them to reach out to the world for help, alert others to what is happening, and simply consume news coverage.  

All of this has led the team at ProtonVPN to delve into their own data and identify the five biggest surges in VPN sign-ups over the past 18 months. While finding the numbers was easy, less obvious was what led to them. This is why the Proton team has also explored the economic, social, and political ongoings that were happening in each country around the surges. 

1) Zambia – 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) Myanmar (Burma) – 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, ProtonVPN 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 – 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 – 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 – September/October 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.

Hong Kong and Russia are amongst other noted surges

Hong Kong saw a spike of five times their average VPN sign-ups on January 9th, 2021. This uptick coincided with China’s enforcement of new internet restrictions on Hong Kong (The Hong Kong National Security Law) — a move that unleashed major protests from Hong Kong citizens.

Hong Kong Broadband Network (HKBN) was one organization that admitted to blocking sites, including HKChronicles, which regularly shared anti-government content and personal information on police officers). This was the first time authorities were said to have censored a website in Hong Kong since the new legislation had come into effect in June 2020, and marked an inflection point in China’s campaign to export its influence throughout the region. Before this, Hong Kong was known for having one of the highest levels of press freedoms in Asia. 

Russia has experienced a torrent of ProtonVPN usage over the last year. The first instance was a  spike five times their average VPN sign-ups on November 5th 2020. This fell one day after Unity Day in Russia — a national holiday commemorating the popular uprising which expelled Polish-Lithuanian occupation forces from Moscow in November 1612. VPN sign-ups remained at that high level until December when ProtonVPN saw the spike reduce to just three times their average. Russia’s VPN usage nonetheless doubled on April 23rd, 2021, and then experienced another huge spike again on June 18th, 2021, three times the new average. These increases coincided with protests around the arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, with much-fearing detainment or arrest should they be found to have spoken out against the government online. 

Samuele Kaplun,  CTO at ProtonVPN, commented, 

“Free access to information and freedom of speech are basic human rights. However, 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. 

We’re proud that ProtonVPN has given people a voice and access to the uncensored internet, and will continue to invest our time and resources in tools and upgrades to ProtonVPN.”

People turn to VPNs for security, privacy, and to ultimately keep their data safe. VPNs are nonetheless only one tool for online safety, which is why the team at ProtonVPN Blog has put together a few tips for reducing your vulnerability on the internet.

Use a VPN. Yes, VPNs are just one part of the safety playbook, but they are still an incredibly crucial part. A virtual private network (VPN) refers to a suite of technologies, the primary aim of which is to improve your privacy when using the internet. It connects your computer, smartphone, or tablet to another computer, called a VPN server, via an encrypted “tunnel” that protects your data from prying eyes.

Having a VPN in place means that whatever you are doing on the internet goes through the VPN server before entering the public network, encrypting your data and masking your IP address as it goes. This dramatically reduces the chance of someone being able to access your online activity. Make sure to research your VPN provider thoroughly — it is important to make sure you go with a legitimate VPN — ideally, one that collects as little information about you as possible and will not sell your data to third parties. 

Encrypt your emails and messages. Using an encrypted messaging service can help you get around censorship as it simultaneously allows messages to be sent while preventing third parties from reading them. This is especially important for companies in light of the rise of data breaches and ransomware. Hackers have previously penetrated some of the largest companies in the world, stealing passwords, phone numbers, and bank details. Protecting your emails and messages with end-to-end encryption limits what even advanced criminals can steal, while likely deterring low-level hackers from going after you in the first place. This goes for instant messaging, too, either on work channels or personal. Messaging apps such as WhatsApp now provide this extra level of data security. 

Check your device security. Device encryption helps immensely with data security. This means that if a device is lost or stolen the information on it still cannot be accessed by anyone else. We also recommend changing passwords — both personal and professional — every few weeks and adding two-factor authentication (2FA) where possible. 

Review your privacy policies. Many people reflexively scroll through privacy policies in order to click “accept” as soon as possible. While this might save you time, it inevitably puts your data at risk thanks to most companies having anti-privacy terms and conditions. Take the time to actually see what rights you’re granting app developers, and avoid ones that share your information with third parties. 

If you do use the data above for a piece, we please ask that you credit ProtonVPN at ProtonVPN: Secure and Free VPN service for protecting your privacy

About ProtonVPN

ProtonVPN is a VPN provider with a team made up of scientists, engineers, and developers, who care deeply about the internet. Their team prides itself on being the experts in the field of security and internet technologies. 

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