The year 2022 represents a new low when it comes to online access to information and freedom of expression. It was the twelfth year in a row that online freedom declined, according to Freedom House’s Freedom On the Net report. There were some obvious causes. Since its unjust invasion of Ukraine, Russia has ramped up its censorship efforts. Similarly, the military junta that has taken over Myanmar has reintroduced draconian online censorship. And China remained the world’s worst offender for the eighth straight year when it comes to denying its citizens online freedom.
But the problem is also widespread. A record 35 countries blocked access to the internet in 2022, according to Access Now. Many of these countries, like Myanmar and Iran, are run by authoritarian leaders, but the worst offender in 2022 was India, the world’s most populous democracy. It imposed over 80 internet blackouts, most of which affected the contested regions of Kashmir and Jammu.
This being said, there are some glimmers of hope: According to Freedom House, 26 countries saw their internet freedom improve, including the United States, which is still one of the most influential online spaces globally. There’s also been a broader push by everyday people worldwide to fight back against internet censorship. People everywhere are fighting to restore access to the open internet, either in the courts or by downloading and using VPNs to bypass the blocks.
For this year’s World Day Against Cyber Censorship, we’ll look at how fighting for a free and open internet is integral to Proton VPN and the future of censorship.
We built Proton VPN to fight censorship
We launched Proton VPN in 2017, roughly three years after we launched our end-to-end encrypted email service, Proton Mail. We launched Proton Mail in response to the Snowden revelations that exposed a global system of mass surveillance. As an end-to-end encrypted email service that could protect people’s messages, Proton Mail became popular with journalists worldwide who used it to communicate with their sources. In many places with authoritarian governments, Proton Mail ended up getting blocked. This gave us the idea to launch Proton VPN.
Authoritarian governments, including Turkey, Russia, and Belarus, still occasionally attempt to block Proton Mail, but Proton VPN makes it much more difficult. Since 2017, Proton VPN has grown to help millions of people all around the world access crucial information, stay in touch with friends and family, and express themselves in the face of online censorship.
We view the freedom of expression and the freedom of information as vital human rights, and we’ve worked with anti-censorship organizations worldwide to fight for a free and open internet. This effort has been led by the Proton community. Thanks to your support, we’ve been able to donate to vital anti-censorship technologies, including:
You’ve also enabled us to work with organizations that provide vital support to journalists and fight censorship in all its forms, including:
- Sponsoring a Reporters Without Borders (RSF) journalist digital security program
- Partnering with RSF
- Leading a training session with the Second Asian Investigative Journalism Conference in Kathmandu, Nepal
- Partnering with Deutsche Welle
- Supporting Access Now
- Supporting Netblocks
None of this would have been possible without the support and generosity of the Proton community. Every person that subscribes to a paid plan helps fund our work that is providing vital internet access. It’s thanks to you that we have been able to stand up for online freedoms in Hong Kong, Russia, and other authoritarian countries.
We hope every member of the Proton community is proud of the work they’ve enabled.
You’re enabling online freedom
People have learned that Proton VPN is an effective way of accessing the uncensored internet, and we have become a lifeline for those in need.
VPNs, in general, are effective tools for bypassing online censorship because they allow people to shield their browsing habits from their internet service provider (ISP). Typically, when a government wants to censor specific websites or social media, it instructs the national ISPs to block connections to those sites. When you connect to a VPN, your connection is encrypted, and the ISP can’t see what website you’re visiting. It can only sees that you’re connected to a VPN server. The VPN then handles your connection, allowing you to safely access the uncensored web.
Proton VPN goes beyond standard VPNs with our complement of anti-censorship features, all of which are available with our Free plan:
- Stealth — A WireGuard-based VPN protocol that obfuscates your VPN traffic and makes it look like normal HTTPS internet traffic, making it hard to detect and block.
- Smart Protocol — This feature automatically detects censorship attempts and selects the best VPN protocol to help you bypass the block.
- Alternative routing —This feature automatically detects attempts to block your connection to our service and bypasses them by rerouting your connection over third-party services, like AWS.
The Proton community’s support also has allowed us to provide the best free VPN service available. Our Proton VPN Free plan has no data limits, no artificial connection speed limits, no ads, and keeps no logs, making it the perfect tool for those in dire need.
Resisting the next wave of censorship
Unfortunately, fighting the censors deployed by authoritarian regimes is a cat-and-mouse game. We develop a new VPN protocol, the censors work on fine-tuning their deep packet inspection tools to detect it. But it seems like we’re rapidly approaching an inflection point.
Despite the persistent and pervasive online censorship, the internet is still mostly global. Only China has been effective at cutting nearly all ties between its internet and the global internet. But there’s evidence that other countries might attempt to replicate its model. Russia has been experimenting with creating its own “splinternet” for years, and the invasion of Ukraine might be what finally launches it. And according to Freedom House, there’s evidence that Belarus, Cuba, India, Iran, Rwanda, and Singapore have taken steps toward detaching their internet from the rest of the globe’s as well.
This would represent a new phase in online censorship that we all need to resist. But as long as governments use censorship to try to control their citizens, the Proton community will be ready to fight back.
At Proton, our goal is to give everyone privacy and security online, so join us. Together, we can build a better internet where privacy is the default.