A proposed Chinese government law designed to rein in the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong has sparked a surge in downloads for VPN services, which can circumvent China’s internet censorship and also help anonymize internet traffic.
The skyrocketing demand started on Thursday, May 21, when China announced it was preparing to pass the controversial draft law, which is expected to criminalize acts of sedition, secession, and subversion. The news sent a surge of Hong Kong-based internet traffic to Atlas VPN, which experienced a 520 percent day-over-day spike in VPN client installs on May 21.
The surge in installs continued to increase throughout the weekend. “Atlas VPN research reveals that the number of organic VPN installs in Hong Kong increased by over 150 times from May 17, 2020, to May 24, 2020,” the company added in a report published on Monday. “Organic installs mean that Hong Kong residents searched for a VPN service themselves, Atlas VPN did not spend money on advertising to attract these users.”
NordVPN, another provider, also said it witnessed a massive surge in Hong Kong residents searching for the company’s product last Thursday as news of the Chinese security law broke.
“The number of inquiries is growing every hour. At the moment, it is 120 times higher, compared to yesterday. It is one of the biggest spikes we’ve ever observed,” the company said on Thursday. It’s now getting back to normal, but is still 30 times higher than a normal day, according to NordVPN.
Unlike mainland China, Hong Kong residents can surf the internet largely free of any censorship. But that could change when China passes the proposed security law, which many fear will end the “one country, two systems” rule and eliminate the region’s autonomy.
Another fear is the potential for surveillance. The same law could open the door for the Chinese government to spy on people’s web activities for evidence of anti-government behavior.
However, a VPN offers Hong Kong residents a potential workaround. The technology will encrypt and reroute a user’s data connection to private servers based outside of China, thereby bypassing the country’s control over the local internet.
According to Google search data, Hong-Kong based searches for VPNs have cooled off in the past two days after hitting an unprecedented volume last Thursday. However, the search traffic may go back up as China fleshes out more details about the proposed security law.
“If Hong Kong falls under the same digital restrictions as Chinese citizens in the near future, we can expect an even higher interest in VPN services,” Atlas VPN added. “Many people in China are used to restricted internet access; however, that is not the case in Hong Kong.”