Russians are flocking to VPNs as Putin closes off the Russian internet in a crackdown against dissent

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Moscow launched a crackdown against dissent after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a "special military operation" into Ukraine on February 24. In this photo in annexed Crimea, a placard reads: "Russia does not start wars, it ends them."
  • Russian demand for VPNs is soaring as the Kremlin cracks down on dissent amid its invasion of Ukraine.
  • Russia is blocking Facebook and Twitter, while other tech firms are withdrawing voluntarily.
  • One analysis estimates that downloads for the top 10 VPNs in Russia increased by 4,375%.
  • For more stories visit Business Insider.

Russians are thronging this week to online tools that help them skirt internet restrictions as the Kremlin began blocking or limiting access to foreign platforms and social media sites, according to multiple media reports and analyses.

Demand for virtual private networks, or VPNs, has surged in Russia in the weeks after President Vladimir Putin announced a "special military operation" into Ukraine, according to data from Top10VPN released Tuesday. Top10VPN reported that search traffic around the term "VPN" jumped by 1,092% over the previous 30 days. 

The VPN analysis site also reported that Russian authorities have now banned 200 websites, including the Russian-language versions of BBC News, German outlet Deutsche Welle, and a plethora of Ukrainian news sites.

As the war in Ukraine rages on, the Kremlin has launched a widespread crackdown on dissent.

On Saturday, Russia blocked both Facebook and Twitter. And just a day before, the Russian government signed a new law that punishes anyone spreading "false information" about its assault on Ukraine with up to 15 years in prison.

As Russia cuts its access to these sites, other platforms such as TikTok, Amazon, and Netflix, have voluntarily withdrawn their services from the country in line with heavy sanctions imposed by the West, further intensifying demand for VPNs.

Analysis website AppFigures reported on Monday that downloads for the top 10 VPNs in Russia surged by 4,375%, from an average of 16,000 per day to more than 700,000 daily since February 24.

"In the 10 days between February 24 and March 5, the top 10 VPN apps on the App Store and on Google Play saw more than 4,600,000 new downloads. And our estimates are very conservative here," the website wrote.

Similarly, UK-registered ExpressVPN has seen a 330% increase in traffic from Russia on its website, company Vice President Harold Li told Bloomberg on Wednesday.

A spokesperson for another VPN, Surfshark, told the outlet its average weekly sales increased by 35 times since the invasion began.

"The last time we saw a similar increase in sales was when China passed the Hong Kong Security Law in May 2020," they told Bloomberg.

On the other hand, Twitter has started including the Tor onion network on its list of supported browsers as of Wednesday evening, two days after the social media platform told TechCrunch that it was working to "fully restore" access to its services in Russia.

Tor works by routing a user's connection through other users' computers across the globe, effectively making them anonymous and capable of breaking through a country's internet restrictions. The browser is also well-known as a  software that allows access to the "Dark Web," or hidden sites that are often used for illegal purposes and the black market.

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