Accessibility links

Breaking News

Turkey’s Latest VPN Ban is Another Block to Independent Media

FILE - A lawmaker from the main opposition Republican People's Party holds up a placard that reads "Don't touch my social media" in protest at the parliament, in Ankara, Turkey, Oct. 11, 2022.
FILE - A lawmaker from the main opposition Republican People's Party holds up a placard that reads "Don't touch my social media" in protest at the parliament, in Ankara, Turkey, Oct. 11, 2022.

When Turkey’s telecommunications regulator moved to ban some of the most popular virtual private networks, or VPNs, audiences lost another way to access independent information.

In total, 16 VPNs are included in the blocking order issued late last year by the Information and Communication Technologies Authority or BTK.

The VPNs including TunnelBear, Proton and Psiphon, are often used by audiences seeking to circumvent bans imposed on Turkish media outlets over their critical coverage.

“The news portals are trying to diversify the sources through which they can access their readers,” said Gurkan Ozturan, of the Leipzig-based European Centre for Press and Media Freedom.

Ozturan is a digital media specialist who researched Turkey for the 2023 Freedom on the Net report by Freedom House, which ranks Turkey as “not free.”

Media sites that find content blocked in Turkey use several circumvention methods, Ozturan told VOA.

They create mirror sites with servers in different countries, produce social media-friendly content, and create broadcast channels in messaging apps.

And audiences learn from a young age how to use VPNs to access banned content. Even elementary school-aged children have started using the tools, Ozturan said.

Media outlets sometimes promote VPNs to help audiences find content.

When the country’s media regulator blocked access to content from VOA Turkish and Germany’s Deutsche Welle in Turkey, both broadcasters promoted Psiphon, Proton, and nthLink as ways for audiences to reach them.

VOA Turkish also uses a mirror site and DW continued its broadcasts under a new domain name.

The Turkish communications authority did not respond to VOA’s request for comment.

Sometimes authorities block access to a single article rather than an entire website.

According to the Free Web Turkey 2022 Internet Censorship report, access to 3,196 news articles was blocked in the country.

“Access to news in the public interest is arbitrarily banned in one way or another. Turkey is in the grip of censorship, and citizens turn to VPNs to overcome this,” Aysegul Kasap, managing editor of news website Diken, told VOA.

Diken has a section on its website dedicated to its blocked news articles. Titled “VPN News,” the page offers audiences access to content blocked by Turkish authorities, with the earliest news articles dating back to 2014.

Often the articles report on the president or the ruling Justice and Development Party or focus on corruption.

“As access blocking and content removal decisions became routine, we chose this path to make the news accessible and readable again,” Kasap said.

Diken also implements other strategies to inform the public about any news story facing a ban or removal.

“If the news story is about an issue the public absolutely needs to know, we report the news again. For a news story that has been removed, we write another news report as ‘Our news with this headline has been removed from the publication’ and rewrite the main elements of the removed news under that,” Kasap said.

“From time to time, we also receive a removal order for these news reports on removal orders,” Kasap added.

VPNs are among the circumvention tools that help bypass internet censorship.

While it is difficult to ban access to VPNs completely, Simon Migliano, the head of research at the digital review site, says that it is possible to identify and block VPN traffic, typically with Deep Packet Inspection technology. He cited Iran, China, and Russia as examples.

“What we have seen in Turkey so far is that the websites of the 16 VPN providers are being effectively blocked, which makes it harder to download and sign up for VPN services,” Migliano told VOA.

A spot test of VPNs from inside Turkey found that some are still accessible, while others did not load.

“While we can see that certain VPN services are still functional in Turkey if they are already installed, we are also hearing anecdotal reports of severe throttling of affected VPNs and blocked traffic,” Migliano added., SecureVPN, and Surfshark confirmed to VOA that their users experience some technical difficulties in Turkey. Proton told VOA that the blocks have not been entirely effective.

“Unfortunately, it’s not the first time that Turkish authorities have resorted to internet censorship. Last year, we saw a huge rise in Turkish VPN use in February following blocks to Twitter, and in May around the time of the election,” Antonio Cesarano, product manager at Proton, told VOA.

“Now, it looks as if the government is going further by targeting VPNs themselves,” Cesarano added.

Ozturan says it is very common to use VPNs in times of crisis because “the Turkish government’s first response to any kind of crisis is to restrict internet connectivity and to block people’s access to news sources.”

In an email to VOA, Gabriele Racaityte-Krasauske, Surfshark’s head of communications, recalled how social media platforms were blocked for several hours after the earthquake in February of last year in which more than 50,000 people died.

“Twitter was blocked on several networks within Turkey, eliminating a vital communication channel for coordinating relief efforts after the devastating earthquake,” she said.

In declaring a state of emergency, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan warned that action would be taken against those seeking to sow disinformation.

“We follow those who intend to set our people against each other with fake news and distortions. This is not the day of debate,” Erdoğan said during his first speech after the quake.

But analysts like Ozturan said that times of crisis, like the earthquake, are when digital access “becomes a matter of life and death.”

This article originated in VOA’s Turkish service.