Sri Lanka’s attempt to contain spiraling protests by blocking popular social media platforms led to an extraordinary spike in the use of censorship-dodging virtual private networks, a tracking firm said Monday.
Demand for VPNs went up by a staggering 17,000 percent on Sunday when the ban came into effect, Top10VPN.com said after tracking downloads by Sri Lankan users.
“There were 27,815 searches for VPN compared to a daily average of 321 over the previous 28 days,” Simon Migliano, the firm’s head of research, told AFP in an email.
“This is a huge increase in interest in what’s essentially a very niche tool for most people.”
Sunday’s ban blocked access to WhatsApp, Facebook, YouTube and a host of other popular platforms but it was lifted after 15 hours, following a ruling by the country’s Human Rights Council deeming the blackout illegal.
The head of the country’s internet regulator resigned after the ban order went into effect and technology minister Namal Rajapaksa, the nephew of Sri Lanka’s president, also publicly criticised the policy.
“The availability of VPN, just like I’m using now, makes such bans completely useless,” Rajapaksa said on Twitter.
“I urge the authorities to think more progressively and reconsider this decision.”
He resigned that evening, along with all other ministers in Sri Lanka’s 28-member cabinet, excluding his uncle president and father, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Sri Lanka is in the grips of what the government concedes is the island nation’s worst economic crisis since independence from Britain in 1948.
The anti-government hashtags “#GoHomeRajapaksas” and “#GotaGoHome” have been trending locally for days on social media after severe shortages of essentials, sharp price rises and crippling power cuts.