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Global VPN downloads surge in 2020

Repressive regimes’ regulatory demands and remote working see virtual private network usage rocket over the past 12 months

Driven by particular demand in Arab countries, worldwide virtual private network (VPN) downloads reached 277 million in 2020, according to research by technology provider Atlas VPN.

According to data based on the company’s VPN adoption index, it was not surprising to find that technology preventing the tracking of users’ online activities from parties such as hackers, internet service providers (ISPs) or probably more likely government agencies would find favour in territories such as the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman and Saudi Arabia. In these four countries, on average VPNs penetrated 44.75% of the market over the past 12 months.

Indeed, Atlas VPN said it was possible to correlate a country’s VPN adoption rate with how strict the internet censorship and other online restrictions are in that country. Most of these countries, it added, ban any content that is against Muslim values or criticises the government.

The leading country in terms of VPN adoption was the United Arab Emirates (UAE), with a 61.61% penetration rate in the year 2020. More than 9.89 million virtual private network downloads originated from the country.

Offering reasons as to why this uptake was so large, Atlas VPN observed that the government employs stringent internet restrictions and that the UAE’s two leading ISPs ban any content it feels goes against Islam’s moral values, the main target being pornography websites.

Also, internet service providers censor politically sensitive topics, mostly those that criticise the government. VoIP services are also banned in the United Arab Emirates thus providing another reason for Atlas VPN as to why expatriates were turning to VPNs as a solution to reach out to their families.

With a VPN penetration rate of 53.06% and 2.88 million downloads during the year, Qatar reached second place in the rankings. Another Gulf country with substantial internet restrictions, Qatar, was said to be similar to the UAE in terms of reasons for censorship, and in turn driving VPN usage to surmount such barriers.

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Third-placed Oman was described as having a government that tightly monitors its citizens’ conversations over mobile phones, e-mail and online chat rooms, and all of the country’s internet cafes are under a strict restriction – their floor plan must be designed so that the cafe’s employees always see their customers’ computer screens.

The UK made the top 10 list at number nine, with Brits installing VPN applications at least 8.19 million times, amounting to a 12.07% penetration. Finally, the US closed out the top 10 list with an 11.52% adoption rate and 38.12 million downloads last year.

Yet the research also show that strict internet restrictions were not the only driving force behind the high VPN adoption rate last year.

The data showed that from February 2020, people started staying at home due to the closure of offices, public venues and the cancellation of public gatherings caused by the pandemic, and as a result began using the internet more often, with many of them choosing to watch TV shows and movies. This had a knock-on effect in VPN usage as they were employed to bypass restrictions from certain streaming services such as Netflix, the BBC and Amazon Prime which apply geo-restrictions for viewing the content.

VPN spikes were also found to have occurred as a result of the huge increase in remote working, which has seen employers require their workers to use VPNs to protect the company’s data from hackers.

“The year 2020 will be remembered as a year when VPNs became mainstream since millions of people shifted to remote work amidst the coronavirus pandemic,” said Rachel Welch, COO of Atlas VPN, offering insights on how the VPN market shifted in 2020 as revealed in the study.

“Among other things, to access a company's network, most people have to use a VPN to protect their own, as well as their employers’, data.”

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