As countries around the world are banning or threatening to restrict TikTok, Interest in virtual private networks has increased.
By using VPNs, users can access an online service through an encrypted tunnel, thereby avoiding app blocks. "We are seeing an increasing number of governments around the world trying to control the information their citizens can access," noted Harold Li, vice president of ExpressVPN, who claims to have over 3,000 servers in 94 countries. "This is why VPNs are used by many around the world to access blocked websites and services."
On the ExpressVPN website, traffic increased 10% week-to-week after the US government announced a potential TikTok ban. The VPN service saw similar trends in Japan and Australia, where WoW traffic increased 19% and 41%, respectively, after governments announced they would block TikTok.
When India officially closed TikTok, ExpressVPN saw WoW traffic increase by 22%. In Hong Kong, where TikTok voluntarily withdrew after the national security law went into effect, the VPN service saw WoW traffic growth of 10%.
Not a miracle cure
VPNs have long been a popular solution for people to escape restrictions on the Internet, be it censored content or app bans. We have written about Hong Kong residents flocking to VPN services in anticipation of increased censorship, but using a VPN is not a “magic bullet,” as a Hong Kong media scholar warned.
Governments can make it more difficult for average users to access VPNs by removing them from local app stores. Users have to register in a different regional app store, which often comes with obstacles like owning a local credit card. Countries can also illegalize the use of VPNs, impose fines on users, and even jail VPN providers like China.
Depending on how an app block behaves in practice, other challenges can arise that VPNs cannot solve. "We don't yet know how to enforce potential bans, and users may need to jump through other frameworks such as removing their local SIM card in addition to using a VPN," suggested Li.
Users can look for alternatives to locked apps, but switching services can be costly, especially if a product has strong network effects. For example, TikTok has a "content network effect" that makes it difficult for rivals to match the user experience, as my former colleague Josh Constine pointed out.
Similarly, those concerned about a possible WeChat ban in the US may simply simply lack an alternative to Chinese Messenger with over 1 billion users. For members of the Chinese diaspora in the US, WeChat is the only way to reach their families and friends in China, where it is the dominant chat app, while major Western social networks are not available.
Smaller apps fly under the authority's radar. In contrast to its competitors Telegram and Whatsapp, the encrypted messenger signal is currently still available in China. Currently, the app rose 51 places in the Chinese rank of iOS social apps between August 7 and 9, and currently ranks 36th. Others in China use iMessenger, which is also unblocked, to keep in touch with their US contacts. However, the option is exclusive to iPhone users.
Individuals and businesses around the world are increasingly having to adapt to service shutdowns or they run the risk of losing access to the free and open Internet. Telegram founder Pavel Durov lamented: "(D) The US move against TikTok sets a dangerous precedent that could potentially kill the Internet as a truly global network (or what's left of it)."