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Emerging tech reporter
One of the first casualties of Russia’s war in Ukraine was access to the free flow of information and a functioning internet.
In Russia, Vladimir Putin’s government blocked major websites like Facebook and Twitter, and scared off others like TikTok and Netflix through a law criminalizing so-called fake news. Apple and Google prohibited paid apps in their app marketplaces to cut off Russia from the global economy in protest of the war. In Ukraine, incessant bombing and persistent blackouts have made internet access spotty and unreliable in parts of the country.
But both Russians and Ukrainians are finding ways to access the internet despite blockages and interruptions. The app analytics firm SensorTower reveals how people’s access (and priorities) have shifted in Russia and Ukraine. The number of downloads for smartphone apps such as Instagram, online games, and payment services has dropped off in lieu of critical communication and virtual private networks (VPNs).
In Ukraine, the country has prioritized encrypted messaging apps like Telegram and Signal, as well as apps issuing real-time alerts about nearby dangers. In Russia, the picture is much simpler: Russians are trying to evade Kremlin censors. People are downloading VPNs—software that disguises the origin of the internet user—to skirt government restrictions and access outside news and information.
The Russians have repeatedly bombarded major cities in Ukraine. That sent the app Air Alarm, which alerts Ukrainians about nearby air raids, to the top of the most downloaded apps in Ukraine in the last four weeks.
The second most popular is Starlink, a broadband service operated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which entered Ukraine on Feb. 26 in response to a request by Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s minister of digital transformation. The company has installed terminals around the country that connect to satellites and serve as backups during power outages, now commonplace in Ukraine. Starlink quickly became one of the most popular apps in Ukraine, downloaded 76,000 times between Feb. 28 and March 13, a 280% increase from the prior two-week period.
Most of the other top apps are for communication. In Ukraine, families are being separated as more than three million people flee the country, while men between 18 and 60 are banned from leaving the country, according to the UN.
Signal is an end-to-end encrypted messaging app, while Telegram offers encryption for only some of its services. Telegram is also a broadcasting tool of sorts, used by many to disseminate news. It’s one of the few major services left unblocked by the Russian government, though its founders are Russian exiles. The New York Times launched its own Telegram channel about the war on March 14. Meta-owned WhatsApp, which uses the Signal protocol for encryption, was the ninth-most downloaded app in Ukraine during this period.
When governments restrict access, VPNs allow residents to evade them by accessing the internet as if they were in a remote location or foreign country. Russians have more reason than ever to use one: popular websites like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and Netflix have all become unavailable in the country. This week, 12 of the top 20 apps in Russia were VPNs.
The dominant Russian social media app, VKontakte, is still accessible but likely complying with Putin’s new fake news law, which criminalizes hosting critical information about the Russian military or the ongoing war in Ukraine. VKontakte was founded by Pavel Durev, sometimes called the Mark Zuckerberg of Russia, who was dismissed in 2014 after refusing to turn over user data about Ukrainian protesters.
Durev and his brother Nikolai later left Russia in self-imposed exile and founded Telegram which serves as a crucial communications tool for Russians and Ukrainians alike. Telegram is now among the top 10 apps in Russia.
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