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Data-Stealing? Battery-Draining? An Anti-VPN Campaign Sweeps Russian Social Media

August 1, 2022

A decade ago, 261 websites were blocked by the Russian government. Last year, that number surpassed 70,000, Internet-freedom activists say, while more than 5,400 sites have been blocked since Russia launched its massive invasion of Ukraine in late February.

In response, a growing number of Russians have turned to VPNs – virtual private networks that mask Internet users’ locations and enable them to view blocked websites. According to The Times of London, 24 million Russians – about one-quarter of all adult Internet users -- employed a VPN in May, up from a pre-invasion figure of 1.6 million.

The market-research service AppMagic reported that Russians downloaded VPNs more than 12 million times in the first three weeks of July alone.

President Vladimir Putin has said in the past that straightforward prohibitions are not the best way to restrict Internet use, saying the state must be smarter and subtler to achieve its aims, and his government has been reluctant to ban VPNs outright, wary of alienating the many Russians who use them to access Western social media and other sites for entertainment purposes.

A 2017 law made it illegal for VPNs to provide access to blocked sites, but it put the obligation to comply on VPN-service companies, an obligation they have largely ignored. The government has, however, blocked over 20 individual VPNs.

Now, activists say, a soft-power initiative has been launched to frighten Russians away from VPNs and herd them back toward government-controlled information resources.

“If you, like me, downloaded a VPN after all the hype, I congratulate you on being screwed,” the blogger Batya-Goda, with about 46,000 followers, wrote on July 6 in a now-deleted social-media post. “I was happy for about 20 minutes, using all my favorite apps. But then everything fell apart -- nothing works, other apps got hung up, my battery drained like mad, Internet access slowed. A friend of mine in IT said VPNs -- particularly the free ones -- sell user data.”

Batya-Goda called VPNs “the problem of 2022.”

Dozens of similar posts denouncing VPNs have flooded the popular social network VKontakte and others, including posts from local-government officials.

Nikita Danyuk, an academic and a member of the government’s advisory Public Chamber, was quoted by numerous pro-Kremlin outlets this month warning of the danger of data theft and denouncing VPNs as “the gray cardinals of the criminal world.

“Russians need to understand that the data VPNs take does not remain in Russia and can end up in various hands, including those of scam call centers, spy agencies, and so on,” Danyuk was quoted as saying.

On July 20, the pro-Kremlin Gazeta.ru website quoted Artyom Geller, a technical adviser to the Federation Council and the lead designer of the president’s Kremlin.ru website, as asserting that the United States was financing free VPN services in order to get “access to the data of users in other countries” and to exercise “ideological influence” over Internet users abroad.

Geller seemed to be referring to the Open Technology Fund (OTF), a U.S. nonprofit that is a grantee of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), which also oversees RFE/RL and other U.S. international broadcasters. According to its website, OTF supports expanded access to the Internet, “including tools to circumvent website blocks, connection blackouts, and widespread censorship.”

According to a Reuters report in June, OTF has provided several million dollars to three VPN companies since the February 24 invasion of Ukraine.

OTF President Laura Cunningham was quoted as saying that the support was necessary because “the Russian government is attempting to censor what their citizens can see and say online in order to obscure the truth and silence dissent.”

Russian freedom-of-information activists are skeptical of the motivations behind what they say appears to be an organized anti-VPN scare campaign.

“I don’t believe that the authorities suddenly started noticing a lot of data theft and decided to use such a campaign to protect people,” said Stanislav Shakirov, head of the Internet-monitoring group Roskomsvoboda. “Most likely they noticed that more and more people are using VPNs and they decided to try this to influence their core electorate -- people who don’t know much about technology and can’t tell what is true and what is not.”

Nonetheless, Shakirov cautioned, there are free VPNs that do mine user data.

“VPN services cost money,” he said. “If the clients aren’t paying, that means they have to get the money somewhere else.”

Companies also reportedly slow down their free VPNs to usher users toward paid services.

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