Russians use VPN, Tor to break through internet blockade in hopes of getting the real inside story of Russia-Ukraine war

In order to counter the blocking and control of its media by Europe and the United States, the Russian government announced last month that it has blocked Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other social media, and the country has been commented by foreign media as "as if a digital iron curtain has been pulled down". Despite Putin's efforts to control social media and information dissemination in the country, more and more Russian netizens have decided to "climb the wall" and bypass the restrictions imposed by the authorities.

Hundreds of thousands of Russians are now trying to use virtual private networks (VPNs) to break through the government's blocking of social media and foreign media in the hope of getting the right information about the war between Russia and Ukraine. VPNs are generally used to protect online connectivity and online privacy by creating an encrypted connection between the device and a remote server, allowing people to see blocked websites within the country.

An Internet rights expert told CNN that Putin's blocking of the Internet may have inadvertently triggered a massive, permanent shift in the population's level of Internet access. According to an interview with The Guardian, one Russian living in an EU country said that many of his friends back home have purchased VPN services in order to communicate with the outside world, and "they are very worried that the pipeline of external connections will be blocked."

VPN use soars as Russian people open up new ways to break through internet blockade

According to a digital analytics firm called SensorTower, Russian Internet users downloaded VPN applications from the Apple App Store and Google Play store a total of 2.7 million times during the week of Feb. 28. The demand for VPNs from Russians has also continued to climb upwards over the past week.

In addition, data from Top10VPN, a private internet service in the UK, shows that between March 4 and March 10, VPN internet searches nearly doubled from the previous week. In addition, the number of searches even peaked the day after Facebook was blocked, counting at least 260,000 searches.

A spokesperson for SensorTower told CNBC that Russians are now trying to get around these restrictions as companies stop offering Russian-related products or services, leading to a spike in the use of VPN apps.

However, VPNs are just one way for Russians to break through the cracks. Cloudflare, a network infrastructure platform, notes that traffic to a range of instant messaging software, including Messenger and WhatsApp, has also continued to increase since March 1. Such an upward trend is also reflected in social media platforms such as YouTube, Instagram and TikTok.

Technology sanctions are also a double-edged sword, and Russians fear being cut off from the outside world

As the war between Russia and Ukraine continues to rage, major technology companies and communications networks have suspended their services in Russia, putting pressure on the authorities, but such sanctions are also a double-edged sword. There are concerns that even through private networks, Russians will have limited access to the Internet.

Cogent Communication and Lumen Technologies, two multinational ISPs, have suspended their services to Russia in quick succession since the war began. cogent is now the backbone of global network provisioning, with about 25 percent of services, while Luman says its own company has little scope for service in Russia, although pulling out will still help bring network traffic into the country.

NetBlocks, a global network monitoring company, said there has not yet been a significant erosion in Russian network use. Yet measures like Cogent's do little to alleviate Russians' fears of being disconnected from the outside world.

The technology that broke through: Tor, the anonymity network

The Onion Router (Tor), an anonymous browser, has also seen a significant increase in use in Russia in recent weeks. According to The Guardian and Wikipedia, Tor is a technology service that uses volunteers from around the world to act as intermediaries, bouncing traffic between users and websites. The process is encrypted each time, so that the user's real IP location can be hidden, to avoid network surveillance, to protect the user's privacy effect.

According to CNN, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, thousands of Russian users are estimated to have accessed other websites through the software's decentralized network Tor. Twitter has also added a special website to allow Tor users to use the platform without any problems, while Facebook has had its own Tor website since 2014.

Who dies in the information war depends on how much risk the Russians are willing to take

Even though technology has opened up a window of opportunity for Russians, the information war is still full of unknowns as to who will win.

Natalia Krapiva, a lawyer with the online rights group Access Now, points out that most of the general public is not necessarily aware of these tools. For people with poor internet skills, these technologies can be complicated, so expanding usage will be a challenge.

In addition to the level of internet access and the popularity of the tools, the mindset of the Russian public will also influence the future direction of the information war. The creation of Tor sites and the use of VPNs does not mean that Russians will grasp the opportunity to gain alternative views, according to a professor at the School of Engineering and Information at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom.

"It's all going to come back to the question of whether people are willing to put themselves at risk," he said. When the potential impact (of walling) is so severe, how much complexity and effort is an ordinary citizen, perhaps one who is just beginning to question the way Putin rules, willing to endure to find information that contradicts the official narrative?

From:On DarkNet – Dark Web News and Analysis
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