Turkey tightens internet censorship ahead of elections / FINANCIAL TIMES

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New controls on VPNs underline Erdoğan’s moves to curb freedom of information

January 14, 2024, Financial Times

            Turkey is tightening its censorship of the internet months before an important election, highlighting concerns that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government is further restricting civil liberties.

Documents seen by the Financial Times show that Turkey’s Information Technologies and Communications Authority (BTK) told internet service providers a month ago to curtail access to more than a dozen popular virtual private network services.

At the same time, social media site X said this week it had “taken action” against 15 posts as a result of a court order that also targeted several of the group’s rivals. X said it would have faced a ban in Turkey had it not complied with the order.

The latest interventions against online content, which come ahead of local elections in March, have fuelled concern that the government is further stifling independent sources of news and information in the country of 85mn people. Human rights groups and Turkey’s western allies say they fear that Erdoğan, Turkey’s leader for the past two decades, is backsliding on democratic norms.

“Widespread VPN blocks only take place in the most authoritarian of regimes,” said Andy Yen, chief executive of Proton VPN, one of the services that was targeted by Turkey’s internet regulator. “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.”

Yen said that Turkey’s new attempt at restricting access to popular VPNs placed the country on a par with Iran and Russia. He added that sign-ups for Proton VPN had soared around the May 2023 presidential election and following the February earthquake when government censors briefly interfered with access to X.

The BTK told internet providers to block access to 16 VPN services, including TunnelBear, Surfshark and CyberGhost, and report back regularly to the regulator on their progress, according to the documents. The BTK did not respond to a request for comment.

VPNs — which allow users to route online traffic through an encrypted virtual tunnel — are widely used in Turkey and many other countries to circumvent censorship and make it more difficult for governments, companies and individuals to track browsing activity. Among the countries with the tightest controls on VPNs is China, where internet users try to bypass the “Great Firewall” that separates the highly censored domestic internet from the rest of the world.

While VPNs are used in more technologically literate parts of Turkish society, many Turks will never use such services and rely on online news media and television that is largely state-controlled or aligned with the government.

“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 rights group. 

Tests by the FT showed the VPN restrictions were at least partially effective, with service on one targeted provider seriously degraded while another service still appeared to function. The websites of targeted VPN providers were also blocked, making it significantly harder for new users without technical expertise to sign up.

Turkey has previously moved to curb certain VPNs, including after the 2016 coup attempt against Erdoğan. However, Akdeniz said that the latest measures were both more widespread and more effective than in the past, since service providers were required to report back on their progress in blocking services. 

The BTK’s measures, which were first reported by Deutsche Welle, come after a sharp rise in the number of foreign and domestic websites censored or shut by Turkish authorities in recent years. The number of domain names that are completely blocked has reached an estimated 900,000 from about 350,000 at the end of 2018, according to İFÖD.

Turkey’s censors try to block a broad 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 Erdoğan and his family, pro-Kurdish and opposition websites and material viewed as obscene or criminal, according to İFÖD. 

            In addition to blocking users’ access to individual web addresses and domain names, regulators and courts are increasingly ordering domestic news organisations to remove content from their archives. 

However, Turkey’s Constitutional Court, the country’s top judicial body responsible for safeguarding citizens’ rights, on Wednesday annulled one of the rules that senior politicians, including Erdoğan, have used to block content they claim is infringing on their personal rights.

“The rules constitute a severe interference with the freedoms of expression and the press,” the court said, although the annulment will not come into effect until October, months after the local elections.

The internet censorship comes amid a darkening backdrop for broader freedom of expression in Turkey. Ekşi Sözlük, a popular discussion platform, was for example blocked following the February earthquake because it had coverage critical of the government. 

Legal action was taken against more than 600 people, including over two dozen arrests, for “provoking the public into hatred and hostility” on social media in posts related to the quakes, according to an EU report from November, which warned of “serious backsliding” in freedom of expression in Turkey. 

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