From covid to challenges to democracy, plenty is changing around the world – and VPNs are needed.
The last 18 months have been unusual by anyone’s standards. The changing way the world works has seen significant shifts in how we work, rest and play, with huge ramifications across the board. It’s all made for sobering reading – and has monumentally changed the way we all operate online.
One unusual side effect of the shift in everyday life is the increased use of VPNs, which couch or hide the true location of an individual as they browse the internet, allowing people to subvert geoblocks on popular services like Netflix, or to avoid government censorship or blockades.
It’s for the latter reasons – getting around government bans on communication and free speech, while having the ability to organise and access resources that promote democracy – that many people turn to VPNs. And they’re doing so in increasing numbers in certain countries, according to a new analysis by ProtonVPN.
A changing world
The company has delved into their own in-house data to identify the biggest surges in VPN sign-ups over the past 18 months and why they occurred at these specific times. It tells the story of a changing world – and how digital activity can be used to track real-life crackdowns on civilisations.
The data uncovered by ProtonVPN is a rogue’s gallery of authoritarian regimes.
The largest surges in VPN installs over the last 18 months have been across Africa and Asia, with most linked to internet censorship and restrictions. Azerbaijan had the largest surge in VPN sign-ups in September-October of 2020, with 500 times more people than average signing up to get a VPN.
Elsewhere, Zambia saw a 120-times surge beyond their average number of sign-ups in August 2021, correlating with the Zambian presidential election between former President Edgar Lungu and his main opposition, (now-President) Hakainde Hichilema. The military cracked down on the internet, blocking ordinary Zambians from accessing websites and social networks to find out how to vote. But many installed VPNs and found their way around the blockades.
Military coups and VPN surges often go hand-in-hand. When the military seizes control, one of its first actions is taking unilateral command of the airwaves and internet. “It’s during these times that VPNs become a lifeline to the outside world, often serving as the only way for people to access external information, view independent news, and communicate with others for help and support,” say ProtonVPN.
So it was in February 2021, when Myanmar saw a 200 times increase in sign-ups, which continued at an elevated level for two weeks. The flurry of sign-ups came on the heels of a series of high profile detainments, including Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, and other political figures.
And in Hong Kong in January 2021, as China enforced new internet restrictions on the citizens of Hong Kong that brought them more into line with the censorious Chinese regime, people turned to VPNs in order to freely express themselves and to protest. A five times the average increase occurred as the law passed. A similar level of increase was seen in Russia as the country cracked down on free expression there.
The use of VPNs in this instance is all in pursuit of freedom.
“Free access to information and freedom of speech are basic human rights,” says Samuele Kaplun, CTO at ProtonVPN. “However, the internet has given authoritarian governments the greatest tool for censorship the world has ever seen and the number of shutdowns and blocks has been increasing year-on-year.”