Some Russians bypass website restrictions through VPNs. What are they? : NPR



AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

What do Russians know about what is happening in Ukraine? Well, that largely depends on what independent media they can access – access which the Russian government has tried to forcefully restrict. So many Russians rely on VPNs – virtual private networks – which hide their identity online and allow them to access blocked websites. Andy Yen is the founder and CEO of ProtonVPN as well as Proton, the encrypted messaging service. He now joins me from Geneva, Switzerland. Salvation.

ANDY YEN: Thank you for inviting me to the show today.

RASCOE: Could you start by giving us your simplest explanation of how a VPN works?

YEN: Well, what a VPN does is basically encrypt your internet connection and establish a new connection from what appears to be a different location. So in the situation where you have censorship, like today in Russia, what a VPN does is create an encrypted tunnel or connection to a server outside of Russia. And this network and server outside of Russia are not censored. And through that, you can access information, resources that may be blocked in the country in which you are actually based.

RASCOE: So how has the use of your products changed since the start of the war?

YEN: Well, VPNs serve many purposes. And, you know, a lot of it is about security and privacy. So even before the war started, in fact, there were VPN users in Russia, just like there are VPN users in the United States, Europe and any other country. But VPNs also have the added benefit of being a very effective tool for, you know, circumventing censorship in certain situations. And what we’ve seen in Russia is actually a tenfold increase. Thus, the use of the ProtonVPN VPN has increased by approximately 1000% since the start of the war.

RASCOE: Wow. I mean, do you have any idea what websites people are trying to access? Of course you – there may be people trying to get information that Russia has blocked, but people may also be trying to go to social media like Instagram and places like that just to post pictures, right?

YEN: Well, Proton is a privacy-focused VPN. And because of that, we don’t actually monitor and, you know, we don’t watch what our users watch, you know. But we know today, you know, most western social media sites have been blocked. Almost all independent news sites have been blocked. So given that we’re seeing such a huge increase in demand, it’s probably due to, you know, one of those two factors or maybe both.

RASCOE: Now, on the one hand, it sounds like it’s great for business. On the other hand, you know, we know there were sweeping financial sanctions that made it harder for foreign companies to operate in Russia and for Russians to pay for services. So what did this environment mean for Proton?

YEN: Well, Russian consumers have no way of paying for services in the West. You know, credit cards don’t work. PayPal is not working. Even SWIFT payments for bank transfers don’t work. And in this situation, Western tech companies really have two choices, right? The first is that you can withdraw from the country and stop serving customers because you can’t make any more money from it. And that’s the path most companies have taken. If you want to stay in the country, all you can really do is offer your services for free. So today, people in Russia who use Proton services – whether it’s ProtonMail Mail or ProtonVPN – – even if they have overdue bills, we just don’t charge them or remove them , because that’s the only way we can, you know, maintain services for them.

RASCOE: But will you be able to maintain this in the long term? Because, you know, it doesn’t look like this conflict is going to end anytime soon.

YEN: Yes. Well, we are clearly losing money today on every Russian user because there is no way for them to pay us. But I think we have, really, a strong moral obligation to be there and to be present and, you know, to provide freedom of information in Russia for as long as possible.

RASCOE: For years, Russia has been trying to restrict the use of VPNs. And in recent weeks, the Russian government, you know, has criminalized speech contrary to its propaganda about the war in Ukraine. What should VPN users think about when connecting? Like, how safe are they?

YEN: Even today in – you know, in Russia, there really isn’t a history of people being imprisoned for using a VPN. In fact, consumer use of a VPN is not actually illegal. So I think the main concern consumers, in Russia and outside of Russia, should be aware of when choosing a VPN is really that, you know, not all VPNs are created equal. Especially today in Russia, where it’s mostly free VPNs, the problem I see quite often is that a lot of free VPNs, you know, have business models that aren’t really privacy-friendly. So what these VPNs do is they monitor, track – you know, collect user information and then resell it. It is also very difficult to identify who actually owns and manages some of these VPNs. So when you use a VPN, you’re essentially trusting that company to, you know, have access to your most sensitive internet browsing activity if they want it. And that is why it is very important to choose the right one.

RASCOE: This is Andy Yen, CEO of ProtonVPN. Thanks very much.

YEN: Yes, thank you for inviting me.

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