VPN use in Turkey soars thanks to the disturbances

Pete Zaborszky

Pete Zaborszky

June 6, 2013

6 June 2013

AnchorFree, makers of popular free VPN software Hotspot Shield, reported a 1000 per cent rise in downloads (120,000 downloads)of it mobile app last weekend, as protests against the increasingly authoritarian rule of Prime Minister Recap Tayyip Erdogan spread across the country. Mobile installs altogether increased by 3000 per cent as protesters rushed to pre-empt censorship measures by using not only VPN software, but Twitter, and apps such as Upstream which live streams video footage to the internet, and Zello Walkie Talkie, which allows user to bypass the tightly state-monitored mobile phone networks.

Despite claims to the contrary, no clear evidence has emerged that the internet has been censored more that in usual in Turkey, with internet monitoring company Renesys stating that ‘Turkey’s Internet does not appear to have changed significantly in reaction to the current protest events’. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that internet speeds have slowed by up to 50 per cent, and yesterday police Izmir, the third largest city in Turkey, arrested 25 people between the ages of 20 and 25  over charges related to ‘spreading untrue information’ and ‘inciting people to join demonstrations’.

Relatives of those arrested have protested, with one lawyer for the accused stating that ‘there is nothing [in the tweets] to provoke the people [into rioting]’. Information that was shared included phone numbers of doctors, meeting arrangements, and warnings about the whereabouts of police roadblocks.

Turkey has in the past had a less than stellar record when it comes to internet censorship, with YouTube being blocked for two years from 2007 for hosting a video that it was claimed insulted Atatürk, revered founder of modern Turkey. In 2011 the Turkish Communications Technologies Authority started to block many websites using a new internet filtering system aimed, ostensibly at protecting children. The system uses four filtering settings: standard, children, family, and domestic, and the CTA has since announced that it will ban search terms such as ‘partner’ and ‘girl’.

Prime Minister Erdogan, who rather ironically uses Twitter himself and has almost 3 million Followers, slammed the social network on Monday for being a ‘menace’, ‘The best examples of lies can be found there. To me, social media is the worst menace to society.’

It comes as little surprise then, that Turks are turning to the mass download of VPN software in an effort to evade existing censorship and the anticipated government crackdown on internet freedoms. Hacktivist group Anonymous , also responsible for bringing down Erdogan’s personal website, together with the websites of the ruling Justice and Development Party, Istanbul Directorate of Security and the Istanbul Governor’s Office, have even gone so far as to start tweeting free VPN account passwords for Turkish residents.

Fortunately, it seems that a complete internet lockdown (such as happened in Egypt during the ‘Arab Spring’ demonstrations of 2011) is unlikely in Turkey, but as the arrests of Twitter uses in Izmir shows, government surveillance and the threat of arrest is very real danger that requires robust countermeasures.

The current explosion of unrest in Turkey began when police used disproportionate force to break up a peaceful protest against redevelopment in an area close to Istanbul’s famous Taksim Square. Seen as typically heavy handed behaviour from Turkeys hard-line Prime Minister, this proved a touch-paper for Turkey’s large moderate and secular community, who have grown increasing worried with the ever more authoritarian and Islamist government.

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