In just under a month, the internet in Russia has become nearly unrecognizable after hundreds of news outlets and social media platforms have vanished from the web, while global tech companies like Netflix and Apple have restricted their services.
The Kremlin earlier this month banned Twitter and Facebook from the Russian internet, and on Monday it blocked access to Instagram. Russian Instagram influencers posted tearful goodbye videos, urging followers to move to platforms they could still access.
Russia has rapidly and drastically entered into a type of digital isolation, cutting off millions of citizens from access to accurate information and online spaces to express opinions. As Moscow seeks to stifle dissent and control the narrative over its invasion of Ukraine, digital and human rights groups are worried about the future of Russia’s internet.
In addition to the Kremlin blocking access to numerous online platforms and news sites, several companies and outlets have been forced to suspend their operations after the country passed a law that makes it a serious crime to publish information the government deems as “fake.”
The law also came as the Kremlin sought to spread a mountain of misinformation and disinformation about the war in Ukraine, leading to major platforms — like YouTube — to remove or label state-controlled Russian media.
TikTok early in March announced it would block Russian users from live streaming or uploading new videos, citing the “fake news” law. But the company went even further in restricting content for Russian users, according to a Tuesday report from the non-profit tech transparency group Tracking Exposed.
TikTok appeared to block 95% of the content on the platform from Russian users, including the accounts of French President Emmanuel Macron and the United Nations, as well as from the platform’s most popular stars like Charli D’Amelio.
“It is the first time a global social media platform has restricted access to content at this scale,” Tracking Exposed said in a tweet.
Major international news organizations, including the BBC, CNN, and Bloomberg, also suspended service in Russia, citing the “fake news” law.
“It’s a very bad situation right now, and we’re trying to make sure that the human rights of people are respected,” said Natalia Krapiva, the tech-legal counsel at the non-profit Access Now, which works to protect digital access globally.
Tech companies pulling out of Russia or platforms vastly restricting services could hurt average Russians, Krapiva said, as well as Ukrainians who are in occupied territories who can only access the Russian internet.
“While obviously there’s legitimate concerns and the need to impose sanctions on Russia, some of the actions are now basically isolating and disconnecting people who are in fact opposing the war,” Krapiva told Insider.
As people who use the Russian internet continue to become more digitally isolated, some have taken efforts to keep connected through the use of Virtual Private Networks. VPNs allow people to connect to the internet through a secondary, remote server that can bypass specific country’s restrictions.
Surfshark, a VPN company based in Lithuania, told Insider its average weekly sales in Russia had increased by 3500% since February 24 – the day Russia invaded Ukraine. The largest spike occurred March 5 and 6, the company said, when Russia announced it would take action to block access to Twitter and Facebook.
“Such a rapid surge means that people living in Russia are actively looking for ways to avoid government surveillance and censorship, be it accessing blocked websites or social media such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, or Instagram,” said Gabriele Racaityte, the spokesperson for Surfshark.
VPN demand surged amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to data from the digital trend and insight company SensorTower. The demand for VPN services in Russia reached a new peak Monday at 2,692% compared to the average demand in the week prior to the invasion of Ukraine, the company said.
As Russia increasingly limits access to the internet, some outlets and platforms have also tried to build workarounds to censorship. The New York Times launched a channel on Telegram with updates about the war in Ukraine. Meanwhile, Twitter last week debuted a version of its social-networking platform on Tor, Ars Technica reported, although it did not tie the announcement to the invasion. (Tor is a software that allows users to anonymously browse the web and can be used to access the dark web.)
The Russian government has blocked at least 384 domains related to its invasion of Ukraine since the conflict began as of Monday, according to VPN review and tracking company Top10VPN, including websites for global news outlets, BBC News, Deutsche Welle, Ukrayinska Pravda, and Radio Free Liberty.
In total, 203 news domains have been blocked in Russia, according to Top10VPN, the majority being Ukrainian news services. There are also “growing numbers of independent Russian and foreign services with local language sites” that have likewise been blocked, according to the data.
Despite the rise in VPN downloads, Krapiva said not everyone has access to VPN services. People who aren’t as tech-savvy and others may be unaware of them or unable to download them, and there’s also a cost for VPN services, especially ones that are safe and secure.
Others may have issues paying for them because of western sanctions that have resulted in restricting access to certain western payment methods, Krapiva said, including Visa, Mastercard, and American Express. Human rights organizations warn that the risk of Russians becoming cut off from the global internet remains high.
“Millions of Russians rely on the internet for information on current affairs and communication with the outside world amid unprecedented government censorship,” said Hugh Williamson, the Europe and Central Asia director at the non-profit Human Rights Watch, in a blog post on Monday.
“Foreign tech companies should seek to provide services and products to people in Russia to help them access the internet and mitigate the risks of isolation.”