Tag Archives: vpn

Russians flock to VPNs to escape internet censorship

As the war (or if you’re in Russia, the “special operation“) continues to rage on, Russian authorities have banned the last semblance of independent journalism and are amplifying efforts to restrict domestic access to free information. But millions of Russians are not having it and are flocking to virtual private networks (or VPNs) to browse the free internet.

The demand for VPNs, which allow the user to browse the internet privately and without restriction, skyrocketed in Russia after the invasion. Between February 27 and March 3, demand surged by 668% — but after Russia blocked Facebook and Twitter on March 4, the demand for VPNs grew even more, peaking at 1,092% above the average before the invasion.

By March 5, all the top ten most downloaded apps in Russia are essentially VPNs.

Overall, the Google Play Store saw 3.3 million VPN downloads, while the Apple App Store had 1.3 million. That’s 4.6 million VPN downloads since the invasion started (Russia has a population of around 144 million).

Russian authorities have not yet blocked app stores, although they have the ability to do so. However, they are trying to block VPN traffic at the network level — drawing from China’s experience in censoring the internet. It’s a bit of an arms race: VPNs may be blocked, and then they have to find new ways of evading censorship (often by switching servers).

For users, this means they may be forced to change servers or even apps regularly if they want to access independent, foreign publishers and social media. Otherwise, they will have to contend with the warped, distorted reality typically present in Russian state-owned media.

Russia’s internet censorship is not as stringent as China’s, but it could be getting there very quickly. As Russia becomes more and more isolated, the Kremlin is trying to cast an online iron curtain to block its people from accessing the free internet. The Russian parliament also approved a law making the spreading of “false” news about the war in Ukraine a criminal offense punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Even the word “war” is banned in Russian media.

It’s not the first time we’re seeing something like this. In January, VPN demand in Kazakhstan also skyrocketed by over 3,400% following an internet blackout during anti-government protests. When China passed the Hong Kong national security law, VPN demand also surged (in a country where VPN usage is already common). Myanmar and Nigeria went through similar situations. However, the increase in demand is unprecedented, VPN providers say

VPN demand in Ukraine has also climbed 609% higher than before the invasion, mostly spiked by fears that invading forces will also carry out cyberattacks.

Virtual private networks grow popular under the lockdown

The coronavirus outbreak forced us all into the house — and thus dramatically increased the value of our internet connections.

An internet router.
Image in the Public Domain.

With our online activity rising to such prominence in our lives, many people are looking to protect both their privacy and data. Virtual private networks seem to be one of the more popular choices for doing so. Demand for these ‘VPNs’ in April was between 22% to 36% higher than pre-pandemic levels, companies report. Demand peaked in late March with an increase of 65% above previous levels.

Private browsing

“Online searches for VPN began to surge around the world in mid-March in the days following the World Health Organization’s declaration of a pandemic on March 11,” writes Simon Migliano, a Digital Privacy & Censorship expert for CNet. “We’ve seen demand suddenly double in countries where lockdowns have been announced or expected.”

VPNs work by extending a private network, such as one you’d set up with a few cables between two computers in your home, over the internet. Think of it as a ‘residents only’ lane of the internet. They’re called ‘virutal’ because they aren’t exactly private networks, but use the (public) architecture of the Internet as we know it to create networks that function like private ones.

Machines that are part of this network enjoy a greater degree of privacy and security of data. Robust encryption is one of the key features of popular VPNs like Atlas VPN.

Other popular uses of VPNs are as smokescreens to protect a users’ identity and real-life location (through the use of a proxy server), usually in order to bypass georestrictions, or as a means of avoiding censorship or surveillance.

All in all, powerful tools — but not something that the vast majority of people would have given mich thought to a few months back.

They have gained major interest during the lockdown, however. Both business and private user demand have increased in 75 countries, with Egypt showing the greatest increase, of 224%. Other companies have reported a 36% increase in global users from February to March.

Work, education, entertainment, and social events are all increasingly moving online. Internet traffic as a whole shot up by 50% in the week of March 23, after restrictions were set in place to curb the outbreak in the EU and US. The more time we spend digitally, the more important issues such as net neutrality and access become as well. 

Credit: Pixabay.

Targeted online advertising offers little value to publishers

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

Targeted online advertising uses tracking technologies to serve ads to you based on your browsing history. Studies suggest that this approach is more lucrative for advertisers than contextual advertising, at the potential expense of users’ privacy. But, new research performed by researchers in information technology suggests that online publishers — the content creators where ads are served (i.e. websites like ZME Science) — gain very little. The findings suggest that publishers make just 4% more from target advertising compared to serving non-targeted ads.

Creepy ads don’t really make content creators more money

The online media landscape has not been kind to online publishers. Although more and more companies are buying online ads, most publishers are reporting stagnant or declining revenues. That’s because most of the revenue from digital advertising in being raked by Google and Facebook, the adtech duopoly. In the US, the pair accounts for 60% of digital ad market spending or $76.56 billion. In the last year, this duopoly has been mildly shaken — but not by some recovery on behalf of publishers but rather by the operations of another tech giant, Amazon.

This ad market ecosystem has come to be dominated by behavioral advertising, which serves targeted ads. This kind of environment encourages the proliferation of tracking technologies that often fall in a gray-area of privacy. The alternative is contextual advertising which selects an ad based on the content being viewed, device type, and location.

Both advertisers and adtech firms have economic incentives to push behavioral advertising in the detriment of non-targeted ads, as this approach can lead to more growth and can extract more value from users. Content producers, however, seem to gain very little despite the fact that they may use privacy-hostile providers (which is basically every major adtech platform operating today). And as if ad tech wasn’t bad enough, virtually every mobile app is tracking users. A recent Washington Post analysis revealed that an iPhone equipped with common apps was sending data to 5,400 hidden app trackers. So, it’s really no wonder why VPNs like PIA are becoming increasingly popular.

In a new study titled Online Tracking and Publishers’ Revenues: An Empirical Analysisresearchers at the University of Minnesota, University of California Irvine, and Carnegie Mellon University, analyzed a dataset of millions of display ad transactions completed in a week by a large publisher. Since the dataset also included the visitor’s cookie ID, the researchers could determine whether a target or non-target ad was being shown, and what the difference in price between the two types of ads was.

This analysis showed that publishers gain only 4% from targeted ads vs non-targeted ads or an average increase of $0.00008 per advertisement. In an article for TechCrunch, Natasha Lomas writes:

“Bearing that “invasive surveillance” in mind, a 4% publisher ‘premium’ for privacy-hostile ads vs adverts that are merely contextually served (and so don’t require pervasive tracking of web users) starts to look like a massive rip off — of both publisher brand and audience value, as well as Internet users’ rights and privacy.”

If you factor in the hidden costs of trading user privacy, publishers may actually stand to lose money by implementing targeted ads. For instance, the International Association of Privacy Professionals estimates that Fortune’s Global 500 companies will spend around $7.8 billion on compliant costs to meet the requirements of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

The study is one of the few to offer empirical verification and insights into the transactions of the digital ad supply chain, which almost everyone in the industry seems to agree that it is too complex and opaque.

“The results contribute to the current debate over online behavioral advertising, and how benefits accrued from tracking and targeting online consumers may be differentially allocated to various stakeholders in the advertising ecosystem.”