Inside the Face-Off Between Russia and a Small Internet Access Firm

The Kremlin spent years building the legal foundation and technological abilities to control the internet more closely. Yet even as Russia blocked certain websites and interrupted access to Twitter last year, few thought it would outright block major social media platforms and independent news websites. While television has always been heavily censored, the internet had been less restricted.

The crackdown in March interrupted communications and commerce for many otherwise apolitical Russians, said Natalia Krapiva, tech-legal counsel at Access Now, a group focused on online speech-related issues. VPN use was already high among tech-savvy Russians, she said, but the blocks and news of harsh punishment for online protest led even more casual internet users to seek ways around the restrictions.

Demand for VPNs surged in Russia, with downloads in March jumping 2,692 percent from February, said Simon Migliano, head of research for the review site Top10VPN.com. Proton was a popular choice, he said, hovering among the 10 most popular products despite being slower than some other choices.

Since then, VPNs have become a way of life for many. Roskomsvoboda, a Russian civil society group focused on internet freedom, estimates that a quarter of the Russian population is using one.

“To simply read independent news or to post a picture, you had to open your VPN,” said Viktoriia Safonova, 25, who now delivers food by bike in Sweden after she fled Russia in July. Both she and her husband were racked by anxiety after the invasion. Finding independent news and information was difficult. Workarounds often weren’t reliable.

“If the one you’re using gets blocked, you have to find another VPN,” Ms. Safonova said.

She recalled the paranoia that set in as new internet restrictions and surveillance took effect. She and her husband, Artem Nesterenko, worried about whether they could criticize the war online, even on international social networks. He recalled how the police had come to check on their building after he scrawled “No to war” in the elevator. He feared being arrested for things he posted online.

As people turned to VPN services to avoid the blocks, Proton struggled to keep up. Over a weekend in March, engineers scrambled to buy and configure more than 20 new servers to avert a crash of its entire network.