VPN booms as countries around the world mull TikTok bans

As countries around the world ban or threaten to restrict TikTok, interest in virtual private networks has spiked.

The use of VPNs can let users access an online service from an encrypted tunnel and thus bypass app blocks. “We are seeing an increasing number of governments around the world attempting to control the information their citizens can access,” observes Harold Li, vice president of ExpressVPN, which claims to have over 3,000 servers across 94 countries. “For this reason, VPNs are used to access blocked sites and services by many worldwide.”

Indeed, ExpressVPN’s website saw a 10% week-over-week increase in traffic following the U.S. government’s announcement of a potential TikTok ban. The VPN service recorded similar trends in Japan and Australia, where it saw a 19% and 41% WoW increase in traffic respectively after the governments said they might block TikTok.

When India officially shut down TikTok, ExpressVPN saw a 22% WoW jump in web traffic. In Hong Kong, where TikTok voluntarily pulled out following the enactment of the national security law, the VPN service logged a 10% WoW traffic growth.

Not a ‘magic bullet’

VPNs have long been a popular solution for people to elude restrictions on the internet, be it censored content or app bans. We wrote about Hong Kong residents flocking to VPN services in anticipation of heightened censorship, but the use of a VPN is not a ‘magic bullet,’ as a Hong Kong media scholar warned.

Governments can make it difficult for average users to access VPNs by removing them from local app stores. Users will have to register in another regional app store, which often involves roadblocks like owning a local credit card. Countries can also illegalize the use of VPNs, imposing fines on users and even imprisoning VPN vendors as China did.

Depending on how an app block plays out in practice, there may be other challenges unsolvable by VPNs. “We don’t know how potential bans may be enforced yet, and it may require users to jump through other hoops on top of using a VPN, such as removing their local SIM card,” suggested Li.

Users can look for alternatives to banned apps, but switching services can entail high costs, especially when a product has strong network effects. TikTok, for instance, enjoys a ‘content network effect’ that makes it difficult for rivals to match its user experience, as my former colleague Josh Constine pointed out.

Similarly, those who worry about a potential WeChat ban in the U.S. may simply lack a viable alternative to the Chinese messenger with over 1 billion users. For members of the Chinese diaspora in the U.S., WeChat is the only way for them to reach their families and friends in China, where it’s the dominant chat app while major Western social networks are unavailable.

Smaller apps are flying under the radar of the authority. Unlike rivals Telegram and Whatsapp, encrypted messenger Signal is still accessible in China — for now, and the app climbed 51 spots in the China rank of iOS social apps just between August 7-9, currently sitting in the 36th place. Others in China use iMessenger, which also remains unblocked, to stay in touch with their U.S. contacts, but the option is exclusive to iPhone users.

Individuals and businesses worldwide increasingly need to adapt to service shutdowns or risk losing access to the free and open internet. As Telegram founder Pavel Durov lamented: “[T]he U.S. move against TikTok is setting a dangerous precedent that may eventually kill the internet as a truly global network (or what is left of it).”