The Role of Free VPNs in Internet Shutdowns
Internet shutdowns are a form of repressive digital disruption aimed at stifling citizens’ right to information and freedom of expression. They regularly occur during protests, elections, and socio-political upheaval.
As well as undermining citizens’ fundamental human rights, they also have significant economic consequences. Our previous research has shown the global economy lost over $5.5 billion to shutdowns in 2021 alone.
During the blocking of social media and other vital online services, demand for free VPN apps often surges as citizens look to find ways to bypass the restrictions.
As internet shutdowns regularly occur in countries that also exhibit high levels of surveillance, it’s vital the tools used to circumvent them are reliable and trustworthy. Without this, citizens’ entire digital activity may be made visible to suspect actors.
This investigation reveals many of the most popular VPN apps downloaded during internet shutdowns are ran by intentionally opaque companies that have significant credibility issues and potential conflicts of interest.
While 65% of VPNs did not disclose their official company name, we were able to identify the parent companies of 12 apps through extensive investigation of public records.
Three quarters of VPNs do not disclose where they are legally incorporated. Critically, this prevents users from learning the VPN jurisdiction that applies to their data.
We also documented nine apps with links to mainland China, where surveillance of digital communication is pervasive despite recent data privacy legislation.
Each of the sections below documents popular free VPN apps downloaded during internet shutdowns in four countries. In total, they have 350 million downloads and may be putting those most at risk of persecution due to their digital activity at an even greater risk.