Election time is coming in Turkey and, under the despotic regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, that inevitably means greater online censorship and more undermining of freedoms in an attempt to cajole voters into voting the way he wants them to.
What’s different this time is that Turkey appears to be cracking down especially hard on VPNs this time round.
Now, he has a dozen more in his sights, according to reports in the Financial Times.
They have quoted documents from Turkey’s Information Technologies and Communications Authority (BTK) addressed to local Internet Service Providers (ISPs) demanding that they block access to more than a dozen VPNs.
Crackdown on VPNs and Social Media Monitoring
Meaniwhile, it is also monitoring social media sites with more care as well.
Twitter (or X) has this week taken action against 15 posts critical of the Erdoğan regime, stating that they had no choice or they would have faced a ban in the country.
So much for Elon Musk’s claim that Twitter would remain a bastion of free speech on his watch.
The Financial Times rightly notes the fact that there are elections coming up in March and suggests that these latest crackdowns are likely to be an attempt to prevent people from accessing news and information critical of the regime ahead of them.
Andy Yen, the CEO of Proton VPN, is quoted as saying, “Blocking… the use of VPNs in Turkey is a very concerning move for internet freedom and privacy and is a breach of people’s fundamental human rights.” He added that such actions are generally only taken by “the most authoritarian of regimes.”
He is absolutely right, and history in Turkey bears this out. During the May 2023 Presidential elections in Turkey, when the Government censored social media, VPN sign ups in the country rocketed up.
The FT has done a pretty thorough job with its report and actually tested VPN availability in Turkey. It found there were restrictions in place with one provider they looked at as “seriously degraded” but another still working well.
However, it did note that a number of VPN websites were now blocked, a step which makes it a lot harder, although not impossible, for many people to sign up for a VPN for the first time.
As Yaman Akdeniz, co-founder of the Turkish rights group Freedom of Expression Association (İFÖD), notes, “VPN usage is not a criminal activity – people rely on it to secure their communications.”
Wider Impacts of Online Censorship and Future Outlook
In Voice of America, Gurkan Ozturan, from the Leipzig-based European Centre for Press and Media Freedom and an expert on Turkish online censorship, noted that people routinely now use VPNs and they are learning to do so at a younger and younger age, with even primary school kids routinely using them.
Akdeniz also noted that the new requirement to report back on censorship was a stepping up on previous restrictions and indicated that the regime really meant business this time around.
It is not the only step they are taking. Online censorship is rising sharply in Turkey, with the number of domains blocked now reaching around 900,000, according to İFÖD.
Ekşi Sözlük, a popular discussion forum online, was blocked in the aftermath of the February earthquake in Turkey because it carried coverage that was critical of the government response.
Some sites, like Voice of America and Deutsche Welle, as well as social media posts and YouTube videos, are now routinely blocked, while subjects and topics that fall victim to the censors include almost anything about Erdoğan and his family, pro-Kurdish and opposition websites and material viewed as obscene or criminal under Turkish law.
It is reported that the regime is even ordering domestic news sites to cleanse their archives of older stories that are now not deemed welcome by Erdoğan and his cronies.
Interestingly, the Turkish Constitutional Court recently annulled one of the key reasons behind this recent spike in online censorship. However, their ruling will conveniently not come into effect until October, long after these upcoming elections are done and dusted.
It remains to be seen how effective that ruling is over the long run, but for now the best advice for Turkish internet users is to find a VPN that does work in the country. Our guide to the Best VPNs for Turkey is a good place to start.