Traffic to international news and social media websites that the Russian government disapproves of has dropped, but not to zero, even with active blocking of access to those domains.
- The BBC’s bbc.com was the foreign news website attracting the most visits from within Russia in February, when the invasion of Ukraine took place, according to Similarweb estimates. Even after being officially banned in March, with access to its domains blocked by Russian ISPs, traffic to bbc.com was only down 20.5%, year over year, in April.
- Desktop web traffic to the BBC’s Russian language news service at bbc.com/russian/ was down only 18.4%, year over year.
- The drop in traffic to social networks banned by Russia has been more pronounced but still not total. Traffic to Instagram, previously the third most popular social network in Russia, is down 78.7%, year over year – and the decline was 74.4% for Facebook and 55.8% for Twitter.
- Similarweb’s April 2022 traffic estimates for banned websites are likely understated, given that our statistics represent web users employing Virtual Private Networks to evade the Russian censors. VPN software obscures identifying information and the specific location of a web user. Similarweb’s data-gathering technology and methodology can still determine the country of origin in many but not all cases.
- The website for the anti-censorship open-source software Tor Project, torproject.org, attracted more than 1 million visitors from Russia in March, and another 380,735 in April, according to Similarweb estimates – despite having been officially banned by the Russian government in December. The Tor project organizers responded to Russia’s clampdown with a variety of workarounds, providing website mirrors and a Telegram bot that can be used to request the software.
Russia moves to block critical news coverage and commentary
Since the start of its invasion of Ukraine, Russia has restricted access by its citizens to some of the most popular foreign news sites and social networks, in addition to curbing access to all domestic media that have been critical of the government. In March, Business Insider’s Rosie Bradbury provided a tour in screenshots of all the error messages and forbidden content warnings Russian users are seeing as they browse the web.
Still, Russia’s efforts have dented traffic to forbidden websites without destroying them, at least not yet.
Banning the BBC
Among international news websites with Russian audiences, bbc.com is particularly important because of bbc.com/russian/ – the BBC’s Russian language news service. The English language pages and the version at bbc.co.uk also attract considerable traffic.
Visits to bbc.com peaked in February 2022, the month of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, at 15.6 million visits from within Russia. Then, in early March, the Russian government announced that it was blocking access to the BBC’s websites, along with those of Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and other media outlets. In April, traffic to bbc.com was down 21.5% year over year, to a little over 8 million visits – still a lot, considering that Putin’s government is actively blocking web traffic to that domain.
In January 2021, bbc.com ranked #31 in web traffic from Russia in Similarweb’s News & Media industry rankings, with almost 13.3 million visits. Now it’s down to #53 on the list.
Desktop web traffic to the BBC’s Russian language news service at bbc.com/russian/ was down 18.4%, year over year, in April but still amounted to nearly 1.8 million visits. That segment doesn’t count the nearly 70% of web traffic Russian users send to bbc.com from mobile browsers.
Still socializing with Instagram, but not as much
The most popular social networks in Russia remain VK.com, which attracted more than 1.1 billion visits in April, and Ok.ru, with 467.5 million. Despite being officially banned, with government officials trying to block access to their domains, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter still ranked in the top 10, albeit with considerably less traffic than they were attracting a year ago.
In April 2021, Instagram was the third most popular social network in Russia, attracting more than 217 million visits, according to Similarweb’s industry index. Facebook followed right behind, with 158.1 million monthly visits, while Twitter was #6 with about 50.9 million visits. Over the past year, they have lost 78.7%, 74.4%, and 55.8% of their web traffic, respectively. Instagram went from attracting about half as many visits as ok.ru to getting about one-tenth as much traffic.
Access to anti-censorship security software
Opponents of censorship are not without resources. In addition to using VPNs to provide an encrypted connection to servers outside of Russia, which can in turn relay traffic to and from the website a user wants to access, they can use the open source Tor browser to connect via a maze of “onion router” network nodes to servers configured for Tor access. One of the ways Twitter responded to being banned by Russia was by creating a Tor version of its website.
The torproject.org website attracted more than 1 million visits in both December, when it was officially blocked by the Russian authorities, and in March, during the fallout from the invasion of Ukraine and crackdown on independent media. The BBC also operates a Tor site, although the UK government has flirted with instituting its own ban of the software, which is associated with criminal uses of the dark web as well as media freedom.
Holes in the Internet Iron Curtain
While it is moving toward tighter restrictions in Internet access, Russia is not yet in the same league as China in its technical capabilities for online censorship. Authorities have also hesitated to block online resources like YouTube because they are so popular with Russian citizens.
And while websites like bbc.com, instagram.com, facebook.com, and twitter.com are blocked – not to mention torproject.org – considerable traffic still slips through Russia’s nets.
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