VPN Demand Spikes in 2020: Worldwide Usage of Privacy Tools Increases
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It would be an understatement to describe 2020 as a tumultuous year. There is no question that the global pandemic and its devastating impact across the world has been the dominant story of 2020. Due to this, numerous other events have perhaps avoided the usual press scrutiny, but have been visible in other ways. In much the same way the pandemic saw home workers turn en masse towards Microsoft Teams and Zoom subscriptions, incidents of civil unrest and the implementation of strict censorship laws around the world have seen citizens flock to privacy-protecting technologies.
In partnership with NordVPN, we set out to analyze how global events in 2020 have caused surges in VPN demand, as citizens from Belarus to Hong Kong set out to secure their online privacy and protect themselves from censorship and persecution for their online activities.
The Top Ten Spikes in VPN Demand in 2020
This data has been provided to us by NordVPN and is related to spikes in their website traffic, compared to the previous day.
Internet access restricted
Chinese security law introduced
Social media restrictions
Internet outages following rigged election
Brazilian data protection law implemented
Five Eyes expands to include South Korea
Pornhub (and other adult sites) banned
Data privacy and copyright laws updated
Internet throttled by Government
Potential TikTok ban announced
Azerbaijan, September 29th
Internet restricted following clashes with Armenia
In late September, as the violent clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia continued to escalate over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, the Ministry of Transport, Communications and High Technologies of Azerbaijan took action to restrict internet access across the country.
Extensive social media restrictions were put in place that took down major communications services, including:
This severely limits the ability for anyone in the country to communicate online and disseminate vital information during such a tense and turbulent period for the country.
As a result of the widespread internet restrictions, VPN use surged in Azerbaijan as residents sought to regain access to online communication. Residents used VPNs to bypass the restrictions and circumvent the government's attempt to limit communications on the ground.
Hong Kong, May 22nd
Chinese security law introduced
Following a lengthy period of contentious pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, the Chinese government introduced a controversial new security law in May aimed at subduing the protests and restoring its vision of what law and order should look like. Officially, the law bans "secession, subversion, foreign interference, and terrorism", but in practice, it is a law to assist Beijing's heavy-handed restrictions of Hong Kong residents human rights and the key to destabilizing the autonomy the region has enjoyed up until now.
The law is a clear signal that Beijing will not relax its efforts to exert its authoritarian influence and will continue in its efforts to erode the freedoms of the region's residents. VPN use in Hong Kong spiked immediately following the introduction of the security law. VPNs have become a crucial tool in the region helping Hong Kong residents to circumvent the Chinese government's internet censorship initiatives, communicate freely online, and preserve their democratic freedoms.
Turkey, June 26th
Social media restrictions and VPN ban
Towards the end of June, demand for VPNs spiked considerably in Turkey immediately following the announcement that the Turkish government proposed to restrict social media sites and ban VPN services in the country. The proposed bill stated that social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and TikTok would be forced to remove certain content upon request or identify users.
Failure to comply would result in restricting the bandwidth allocated to those sites by up to 95%.
Turkey's government has a long history of censoring its internet and restricting its citizens' access to content it deems undesirable or otherwise objectionable to national morals and interests something its citizens do their best to circumnavigate. Following this year proposed social media restrictions VPN use spiked immediately.
Belarus, August 10th
Internet outages following allegedly rigged election
In August, the government of Belarus shut down the internet and cellular access to its citizens following mass protests and public unrest in the wake of the election that saw longtime president Aleksandr Lukashenko win a sixth term despite widespread reports that the election was rigged in the authoritarian president's favor.
The government claimed that the internet disruptions were being caused by a large-scale DDoS attack originating from a foreign source.
However, no evidence exists that suggests the claim is valid.
Instead, as is typically the case with these types of internet blackouts that occur parallel to major political unrest, the blackouts were most likely a case of the government attempting to shut down dissent and prevent demonstrators from mobilizing.
As a result of the widespread internet disruptions in Belarus and the attempts to infringe on citizens' freedoms, interest in VPNs surged throughout the country.
Brazil, September 25th
Brazilian data protection law goes into effect
In September, Brazil's sweeping data protection law went into effect. The Lei Geral de Proteção de Dados (LGPD) is essentially Brazil's version of the European Union's GDPR, and it affords Brazilian residents nine fundamental rights that mirror the data subject rights of the GDPR almost identically.
Along with the individual data privacy rights granted to data subjects in Brazil, the law creates a climate of accountability for organizations that collect and process the data of Brazilian residents by enforcing substantial penalties for violations of the law.
Whenever data privacy developments like this take place, a VPN spike can be expected.
Events like these are instrumental in encouraging citizens to consider their digital privacy and to take action to protect their privacy online by investing in privacy tools like VPNs.
South Korea, January 29th
Five Eyes alliance expands to include South Korea
VPN interest in South Korea spiked following the announcement in January that the 'Five Eyes' intelligence-sharing alliance had expanded to include South Korea. Though the primary motivation for including South Korea in the alliance was to gather intelligence on the country's neighbor to the North, being a part of the Five Eyes alliance means that South Korean citizens will be subject to the same kinds of monitoring and surveillance activities being conducted in other countries in the alliance.
The best way for citizens to evade such online surveillance practices and protect their digital privacy is to encrypt their internet connection, so it's no surprise we saw such a significant VPN spike in the time period immediately following the announcement.
Thailand, November 2nd
Thailand bans Pornhub and other 'offensive' sites – protests erupt
In November, Thailand's Minister of Digital Economy and Society decided to ban the popular porn website PornHub, along with other sites the government deemed "offensive". The decision was made on the grounds that pornography is illegal in Thailand and that the explicit content hosted by such websites violates women's and children's rights.
As expected whenever new online censorship laws are introduced and bans are put in place to restrict content interest in VPN technology also skyrocketed overnight. In this case, the country also saw protest erupt against the ban.
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Japan, June 12th
New data protection legislation enacted and amendments to copyright laws concerning Manga downloads
In June, the Japanese government enacted two important pieces of legislation that caused VPN use to surge in the country.
It's common to see an increase in VPN use around these laws.
An amendment to the Act on the Protection of Personal Information, which strengthens and expands the scope of data subjects' rights and the protection of personal data. As data privacy laws are being introduced, strengthened, and amended at a prolific rate across the globe, and as consumers around the world are gaining an enhanced awareness of the issues surrounding their online privacy.
In addition, amendments made to Japan's copyright laws that effectively crack-down on illegal downloading of mangamaterial will have also directly resulted in a significant VPN spike in Japan in June.
The amendments impose strict penalties for Japanese websites that host manga material available for illegal download as well as for individuals who are caught downloading manga illegally from those websites. When using a VPN, however, manga fans can easily bypass those penalties.
India, March 26th
Internet shutdowns lifted leading to rush for VPNs
In August of 2019, millions of residents of Kashmir – an intensely disputed region that lies between India, Pakistan, and China – found themselves without internet or telephone access after the Indian government cut off access to communications following its decision to revoke a constitutional clause guaranteeing the region a certain level of autonomy.
While government officials claimed the move was to prevent the dissemination of misinformation, such government-imposed internet blackouts are almost always employed as a means of suppressing dissent and suppressing the voices of those affected.
When the Indian government restored the region's internet access in March, VPN use in Kashmir skyrocketed. Kashmiri citizens were able to use VPNs to bypass bandwidth throttling efforts which were restricting residents' internet speeds essentially to 2G standards, rendering even the most basic web browsing activities effectively impossible.
Want to learn more about bandwidth throttling?
Check out our in-depth guide, and find out how a VPN can help you bypass bandwidth throttling!
United States, August 7th
President Trump signs executive order to ban TikTok
In August, US President Donald Trump signed an executive order to ban the immensely popular video-sharing app, TikTok, causing interest in VPNs in the United States to go through the roof.
The order to ban TikTok was based on the idea that the application posed national security risks as well as major risks to American citizens' personal data. With so much sensitive personal data being scooped up by the Chinese-developed social media app, such concerns are not unfounded, even if TikTok representatives vehemently deny that the app poses any privacy or security risks whatsoever.
Nevertheless, the app remains exceedingly popular in the US and around the world, and US teens and influencers turned towards VPN services in droves after the executive order to ban TikTok was announced.
Is TikTok safe to use?
You can find out why TikTok has raised more than a few questions from privacy experts, and learn how to access and use the site safely in our discussion of TikTok's privacy problem.