The Turkish regime of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has taken yet another step down the road to authoritarianism this week as it has strengthened the country’s already draconian internet censorship regime and also banned the accessing of no fewer than 16 VPNs.
Some of the biggest VPN names in the business are affected by this ban, and some of our favourite VPN services will now be illegal to use inside Turkey.
According to Deutsche Welle’s Turkish edition (DW Türkçe), the Turkish Information and Communications Technologies Authority (BTK) has taken the move to try and control the flow of information into the country and prevent people from reading outside news content that might be critical of the Erdoğan regime and its policies.
Turkey’s growing online censorship problem
Towards the end of 2022, there were around 712,000 websites that were banned in Turkey, according to the İFÖD’s EngelliWeb initiative.
With the new censorship wave announced by the BTK, it is estimated that this number will jump to more than 900,000 by the end of this year.
That is almost a million websites being censored by a supposedly democratic regime purely to expand the Government’s control over what information the people of Turkey can and cannot access.
Many, including Deutsche Welle, have been blocked because they have refused to seek a license from the Turkish Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), the broadcasting and media regulator in the country.
This licensing regime is an attempt to expand government control of overseas reporting in the country and many international outlets, including Deutsche Welle have argued that such a regime is incompatible with their own domestic legal system which, inevitably, they have to prioritise.
Of course, many are also unwilling to censor their content at the behest of the Turkish regime as well.
How the new VPN bans have come about
The banning of 16 prominent VPN providers appears to be rooted in a 2014 amendment to a Turkish law that obliges internet service providers to block “alternative access methods” to censored websites.
The move appears to be targeted at overseas VPN services since most domestic VPNs would be fully compliant with the Turkish legal framework and, as a result, next to useless for anyone who cares about their online privacy and security and who wants to access censored content inside Turkey.
While users of those services are likely to find it a good deal more complicated to get onto their websites and download updates, history tells us that VPN companies are far better at getting around such bans that Governments are at enforcing them, so we would recommend you keep using your VPN service and contact your VPN provider if you have any concerns.
The VPN ban may also not last all that long. One commentator quoted by Deutsche Welle, Professor Yaman Akdeniz, who is the founder of the Freedom of Expression Association (İFÖD) and a faculty member at İstanbul Bilgi University law school has suggested the ban might be illegal.
He is quoted as saying that it is lacking a court order and is likely to contravene both the Turkish constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Turkey is a signatory.
But the rule of law means little in Erdoğan’s Turkey, and any attempts to legal away this ban are likely to take many years to be successful, even if it can win.
So, for now, the people of Turkey have little choice but to put up with Erdoğan’s authoritarianism and an increasingly narrow and controlled online media landscape to which, despite this ban, VPNs remain one of the most effective tools to get around.