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Global VPN downloads soar in first half of 2021

Song remains the same with VPNs as repressive regimes’ continued regulatory demands and remote working see virtual private network usage rocket over the first six months of the year

As stringent internet restrictions were continuously ratcheted up in the first half of 2021, virtual private network (VPN) downloads have sky-rocketed to 616 million, according to data based on the VPN adoption index by Atlas VPN.

The index, created by the research department of the VPN service provider, aims to provide a clear overview of how VPN services are being adopted worldwide and studied downloads in 85 selected countries. VPN adoption refers to the percentage of the country’s population that downloaded VPN applications throughout the specified period.

As an example of just how quickly VPNs were downloaded in the first quarter, in 2020, the number of downloads stood at 277 million. Just like in the previous year, most of the countries on the top 10 list, seven out of 10, were Arab countries. Likewise, the reason behind the high adoption rates remained the same – governments in Arab countries tended to employ some of the most stringent internet restrictions globally.

Internet service providers (ISPs) in most Arab nations prohibit any information that violates Islam’s moral principles, with pornographic websites being the primary target. Furthermore, ISPs restrict politically sensitive topics, particularly those that criticise the government.

Yet, by far, the most significant growth in the number of downloads in H1 2021 was in India, where VPN installs exploded to what the study called a “staggering” 348.7 million, representing a growth of 671% over 2020. Prior to 2021, the VPN penetration rate in India hovered around 3%, which is near the bottom of the list.

The study attributed the sharp increase to the rapidly evolving digital ecosystem in India. From 2015 through 2020, India’s internet user base grew at a rate of 24% each year on average, according to Atlas. At the start of 2020, India’s internet penetration rate hit 50%, meaning half of the large population used the internet on a regular basis. The study noted that, given that only 19% of Indians actively utilised the internet in 2015, this was a significant development.

Another key driver, said Atlas, was that India constantly stands at the top of the list in terms of internet shutdowns by the government. This year alone, various regions in India have seen 21 internet shutdowns. Indeed, India also holds the record for the longest internet shutdown in a democracy, which extended from 4 August 2019 to 4 March 2020. The analysis drily noted that with such activity, no wonder citizens were concerned about their digital privacy and security.

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The study highlighted streaming services that apply geo-restrictions and services such as WhatsApp, Telegram, Skype, which tend to be blocked by governments.

“The analysis reveals that the main factor when it comes to the countries’ VPN adoption is how strict are the internet restrictions employed by the government,” said Atlas VPN cyber security researcher Edward Garb.

“These restrictions often go against one of the main positive aspects of the internet – the freedom to express your opinion, to be heard and to pull global attention to issues that might otherwise be hidden by the countries’ officials.”

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