Posted by on June 21, 2022 4:34 pm
Categories: News The Hill

Building trust in the tool millions are using to pierce Putin’s digital iron curtain

Before Russia began its brutal assault on Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin controlled citizens’ access to information by flooding the airwaves and internet with propaganda. This year, with aggression toward Ukraine building, the Kremlin stepped up those efforts by shutting down independent Russian news organizations and restricting Russians’ access to Western websites that countered Russian state news propaganda. Many technology experts have said the move was akin to building a digital iron curtain. Almost immediately, millions of Russian Internet users reacted by turning to encrypted digital tools called virtual private networks (VPNs) to get independent news and communicate with loved ones and friends.

A VPN, which is like a tunnel that data flows through between the user and their online destination, ensures that the user’s connection is private and secure. The technology, which can be downloaded as an app, is commonly used by remote workers and students around the world to connect to companies and classrooms every day. According to The Economist, now, as many as 700,000 Russians a day are using VPNs because it’s a powerful tool that can help them pierce Putin’s propaganda bubble and access censored websites while also protecting their online identity.

During the Russian invasion of Ukraine, reporters and citizen journalists used VPNs to report the truth on the ground without their identities or locations being intercepted by government officials. Ordinary citizens have come to rely on the tool to do everything from bypassing censorship to simply checking in with friends and family on social media or securely accessing their bank accounts on public wi-fi.

While most VPNs successfully protect users, others may — either accidentally or intentionally — expose users to greater risk. In some cases, a provider’s software may have a vulnerability that could expose their customers’ personal information, or in other cases, bad actors may seek to steal or monetize that information. As recently as a few years ago, the industry’s consumer base was made up of mostly technologists and enterprise-level consumers capable of doing deep technical assessments on the products they used. Today’s mass-market consumers know they need a VPN, but don’t have the technical expertise to evaluate providers — that is where industry can step in.

The VPN industry has come together to develop a series of principles that can serve as benchmarks for VPN providers that advance trust and transparency with consumers. Through collaboration with civil society and outside experts, we’re proud to announce expanded VPN Trust Initiative (VTI) Principles that will provide best practices for the industry in the areas of security, privacy, advertising practices, disclosure and transparency, and social responsibility.

Each of the fourteen VPN providers that make up the VTI have committed to a baseline of consumer protections. When it comes to security, the principles seek to ensure that everyone from a conflict zone to a coffee shop off Capitol Hill can rely on their provider to encrypt their data and have the right security measures in place to keep them protected.

Those same users will be able to rely on the privacy promises made by providers. It’s not uncommon for companies to overstate the privacy protections they offer. Some even make promises that can’t even be fully delivered by the technology powering a VPN. Such over-selling is deceptive and destroys consumer trust, but it can be addressed by offering greater transparency around the data that is collected and how that data is shared with everyone from advertisers to government agencies.

The transparency guidelines also call for VPN providers to provide clear language on marketing policies so customers can make informed decisions about what the product does and does not do. By choosing VPN providers that comply with the Trust Principles, consumers can have confidence that their online activities will be protected.

The ongoing Russia/Ukraine conflict has thrust VPNs into the mainstream as a secure tool for internet users. As interest and use of VPNs continue to grow, it’s critical that industry stand together to ensure users can trust the tool that is quickly becoming integral to their daily lives. As the policy and technological landscape continues to shift, we have also committed to continuing to review these voluntary standards and explore ways to elevate their influence.

Christian Dawson is the co-founder and executive director of the i2Coalition, a trade organization, which also heads the industry-led consortium called the VPN Trust Initiative. Follow him on Twitter @mrcjdawson

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