Turkey is increasing its internet censorship efforts ahead of a crucial election, sparking concerns that the government is restricting civil liberties and limiting access to independent sources of information. According to documents obtained by the Financial Times, Turkey’s Information Technologies and Communications Authority (BTK) instructed internet service providers last month to block access to over a dozen popular virtual private network (VPN) services.
This move comes amidst growing concerns that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s administration is undermining democratic norms and freedoms in Turkey. Human rights groups and Western allies have expressed alarm over the government’s increasing restrictions on online content, which they argue is part of a broader effort to suppress dissent and consolidate power.
Andy Yen, CEO of Proton VPN, one of the targeted VPN services, described the blocking of VPNs in Turkey as a “very concerning move for internet freedom and privacy.” He noted that such widespread restrictions on VPN usage are typically found in authoritarian regimes like Iran and Russia. Yen also reported a surge in sign-ups for Proton VPN around the May 2023 presidential election and following a recent earthquake that temporarily disrupted access to social media platforms.
The Turkish government’s crackdown on online content has intensified in recent months, with authorities ordering social media sites to remove content deemed critical of the government. Social media platform X announced this week that it had taken action against 15 posts in response to a court order that targeted multiple rival platforms. Noncompliance with the order would have resulted in a ban in Turkey, according to X.
These developments have fueled fears that the government is further stifling independent sources of information and dissenting voices in the country of 85 million people. The local elections in March are seen as a crucial test for Erdoğan’s ruling party, which has faced mounting pressure over its handling of the economy and allegations of corruption.
In light of these concerns, human rights advocates and international organizations are calling for greater scrutiny of Turkey’s internet policies and urging Ankara to respect its citizens’ fundamental rights to free expression and access to information
The Information Technologies and Communications Authority (BTK) of Turkey has directed internet service providers to block access to 16 Virtual Private Network (VPN) services, including TunnelBear, Surfshark, and CyberGhost, and to provide regular updates on their progress, according to official documents. The BTK did not respond to a request for comment.
VPNs allow users to encrypt their online traffic and route it through a virtual tunnel, making it difficult for governments, companies, and individuals to monitor their browsing activities. They are widely used in Turkey and many other countries to evade censorship and surveillance. China, in particular, has strict controls on VPNs, with internet users trying to bypass the “Great Firewall” that separates the heavily censored domestic internet from the rest of the world.
Although VPNs are commonly used among tech-savvy Turks, many others do not use them and instead rely on state-controlled or government-aligned online news media and television.
“VPN usage is not a criminal activity; people rely on it to secure their communications,” said Yaman Akdeniz, co-founder of the Turkish Freedom of Expression Association (İFÖD), a human rights organization
The Financial Times conducted tests that showed the VPN restrictions were at least partially effective, with one affected provider experiencing significant degradation in service while another still seemed to work. Additionally, the websites of targeted VPN providers were blocked, making it significantly harder for new users without technical expertise to sign up.
Turkey has previously attempted to restrict certain VPNs, such as after the 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan. However, Yaman Akdeniz, co-founder of the Turkish Freedom of Expression Association (IFOD), stated that the current measures are both more comprehensive and more effective than those implemented in the past, given that service providers are now required to report on their progress in blocking services.
The BTK’s actions come in response to a sharp increase in the number of foreign and domestic websites censored or shut down by Turkish authorities in recent years. According to IFOD estimates, the number of completely blocked domains has risen to approximately 900,000 from roughly 350,000 at the end of 2018.
Turkish censors aim to block a wide range of content, including entire websites of some news providers, such as Voice of America and Deutsche Welle, as well as social media posts and YouTube videos. Censored topics vary widely but include articles critical of Erdogan and his family, pro-Kurdish and opposition websites, and material deemed obscene or criminal.
In addition to blocking customers’ entry to particular person internet addresses and domains, regulators and courts are more and more ordering home information organisations to take away content material from their archives.
However, Turkey’s Constitutional Court, the nation’s prime judicial physique accountable for safeguarding residents’ rights, on Wednesday annulled one of the foundations that senior politicians, together with Erdoğan, have used to dam content material they declare is infringing on their private rights.
“The rules constitute a severe interference with the freedoms of expression and the press,” the courtroom stated, though the annulment won’t come into impact till October, months after the native elections.
The internet censorship comes amid a darkening backdrop for broader freedom of expression in Turkey. Ekşi Sözlüokay, a preferred dialogue platform, was for instance blocked following the February earthquake as a result of it had protection crucial of the federal government.
Legal motion was taken in opposition to greater than 600 individuals, together with over two dozen arrests, for “provoking the public into hatred and hostility” on social media in posts associated to the quakes, based on an EU report from November, which warned of “serious backsliding” in freedom of expression in Turkey.