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Some Russians are skirting website restrictions through VPNs. What are they?

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

What do Russians know about what's happening in Ukraine? Well, it depends in large part on what independent media they're able to access - access the Russian government has been forcefully trying to restrict. So many Russians have been relying on VPNs - virtual private networks - that obscure their identity online and allow them to access blocked websites. Andy Yen is the founder and CEO of ProtonVPN and also of Proton, the encrypted email service. He joins me now from Geneva, Switzerland. Hi.

ANDY YEN: Thanks for having me on the show today.

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

YEN: Well, what a VPN is doing is it's essentially encrypting your internet connection and establishing a new connection from what appears to be a different location. So in the situation when you have censorship, like today in Russia, what a VPN does is it creates an encrypted tunnel or connection to a server outside of Russia. And that network and that server outside of Russia doesn't face censorship. And through there, you're able to access information, resources that are maybe blocked in the country that you're actually based in.

RASCOE: And so how has use of your products changed since the beginning of the war?

YEN: Well, VPNs have many purposes. And, you know, a lot of it is actually security and privacy. So even before the start of the war, in fact, there were VPN users in Russia, just like there's VPN users in the U.S. and in Europe and in any other country. But VPNs also have the added advantage of being a very effective tool for, you know, bypassing censorship in certain situations. And what we have seen in Russia is actually a tenfold increase. So the usage of ProtonVPN VPN has gone up by about 1,000% since the beginning of the war.

RASCOE: Wow. I mean, do you have any sense of what websites people are trying to access? Sure, you - there may be people trying to get information that Russia has blocked, but people may also just be trying to get on 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 are not actually monitoring and, you know, looking at what our users are, you know, viewing. But we do know that today, you know, most Western social media sites have been blocked. Almost all independent news websites have been blocked. So given the fact that we see such a big increase in demand, it's probably driven by, you know, one of those two factors or maybe both of them.

RASCOE: Now, on on the one hand, it would sound like this is great for business. On the other hand, you know, we know that there have been sweeping financial sanctions that have made it harder for foreign companies to operate in Russia and for Russians to pay for services. So what has that environment meant for Proton?

YEN: Well, there is no means for Russian consumers to pay for services in the West. You know, credit cards are not working. PayPal is not working. Even SWIFT payments for bank transfers are not working. And in this situation, Western tech companies really have two choices, right? One is you can pull out of the country and stop serving customers because you can't make money from it anymore. And this is indeed the path that most businesses have taken. If you want to stay in the country, all you can really do is offer your services for free. So today, the people in Russia that are using Proton services - whether it's ProtonMail Mail or ProtonVPN - - even if they have invoices that are due, we're simply not charging them and waiving the fees because that's the only way in which we can, you know, maintain services for them.

RASCOE: But will you be able to keep that up long term? Because, you know, it doesn't seem like this conflict is going to end any time soon.

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

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

YEN: Even today in - you know, in Russia, there isn't really a track record of people being imprisoned for using a VPN. In fact, usage of a VPN by consumers is not actually illegal. So the main concern I think consumers, you know, in Russia and outside of Russia need to be aware of when picking a VPN is really that, you know, not all VPNs are created equal. Especially today in Russia, where it's mostly free VPNs, the issue that I see quite often is many free VPNs, you know, have business models that are not actually pro-privacy. So what these VPNs are doing is they're actually monitoring, tracking - you know, collecting user information and then reselling that. It's also very hard to identify who is actually owning and running some of these VPNs. So when you're using a VPN, you're essentially trusting that company to, you know, have access to your most sensitive internet browsing activity if they wanted to. And that's why it's very important to choose the right one.

RASCOE: That's Andy Yen, CEO of ProtonVPN. Thanks very much.

YEN: Yes, thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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