Following the military coup in Turkey four months ago, President Erdoğan’s government has decided to crack down on the use of internet obfuscation and circumvention services such as VPNs and Tor. The Turkish government believes that the use of VPN encryption tunnels may have been involved in the coordination of the failed 15 July 2016 coup.
VPNs and Tor Project allow people to encrypt their web data, making it tough for the government to know what they are doing online. In addition, VPN services can be used to get around government blocks on social media websites.
According to local reports, on Friday 4 November the Turkish Information Technology and Communications Authority – known as BTK – asked ISPs within the nation to start blocking Tor and a number of well-known VPN services. Those included ExpressVPN, VyprVPN, Private Internet Access, IPVanish, VPN Master, Hotspot Shield, Psiphon, Zenmate, TunnelBear, and ZeroVPN, amongst others.
According to local sources at TurkeyBlocks, earlier on 4 November the government suddenly enforced a total blackout on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. In addition, it has also been confirmed that messaging services such as WhatsApp and Skype were subjected to the blackout, leaving Turkish people with fewer options for communicating online. The block on WhatsApp is believed to be the first of its kind of the popular messaging app (in Turkey).
Censorship in Turkey
This isn’t the first time that social media giants have been blocked in Turkey, with a number of Facebook and Twitter outages enforced since 2011. It is because of that ongoing government censorship that there has been a growing awareness of VPN services (and Tor) within the country. Many people are choosing to protect their digital footprint (from the watchful eyes of the totalitarian authorities), and to circumvent government-imposed restrictions as and when they occur.
TurkeyBlocks is an independent watchdog within the country that keeps tabs on what the government is blocking and when. It says that social media websites are being blocked using internet throttling methods. These are making popular sites too slow to access. Furthermore, the independent monitoring group has disclosed that it believes the sudden internet onslaught is directly linked to the arrests of pro-Kurdish party leaders.
Those arrests took place just after midnight on the morning of 4 November. The joint leaders of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaș and Figen Yüksekdağ, were detained in the southeastern city of Ankara. Demirtas, the joint leader of the HDP (who is known as the Kurdish Obama by supporters), was arrested along with ten other MPs for allegedly withholding information relating to ‘terrorist propaganda.’
Those arrests are a severe intensification of the crackdown on political dissenters and opposition of the current regime following the failed coup in July. As well as Friday’s arrests, earlier in the week the police rounded up writers, editors, and other staff members of Cumhuriyet, the main opposition newspaper. The editor – a well-known cartoonist and anti-government column writer – is among those detained. Furthermore, police officers (gendarmerie) were fired en masse for alleged support of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). PKK is a separatist group known to support the insurgency against the government.
According to the government, the mass arrests and police layoffs are all related to those individuals’ support for PKK and Fethullah Gülen, a US-based preacher that Erdoğan’s government believes engineered July’s coup from behind the scenes.
TurkeyBlocks made the following comment in relation to the government’s decision to block VPN services within the nation,
‘VPN tunnels have proven to be an effective means of circumvention for users determined to work around network throttling, which slows down and effectively blocks services on fixed lines and mobile devices. Usage of the technique in Turkey during political incidents such as the arrest of members of Parliament is unprecedented since the 2013 Gezi Park protests.’
What is clear from the actions of Erdoğan’s government is that Turkey is in the midst of a quasi-dictatorship. Blocking encrypted communications on the internet can be considered a human rights violation and Turkey’s government is once more denying its people the right to privately communicate as they will.
Sadly, due to it being the weekend, so far we have been unable to get a comment from any of the top VPN providers. However, we will update this article with extra information as soon as it becomes available.