Ahmet A. Sabancı
Mar 29 2018

Turkey's internet censorship is not only censorship

We in Turkey can no more think of the internet as a tool for free and unlimited access to information without thinking of censorship.

We have reached a point where no one finds the blocking of new websites strange, in fact they are surprised when some have not yet been blocked.

Censoring the internet is a game of cat-and-mouse, and the ease with which blocks can be circumvented makes many people happier to find ways to get around the problem than discuss it.

However, censoring the internet does not work like censoring a book or news. The technical consequences create risks and dangers that go beyond accessing information. Since those risks are widely unknown and the problem is not sufficiently discussed, many debates on internet censorship end when people say “no problem, I’ll use a VPN and bypass the block”.

One of the issues that are largely unknown are the changes in blocking technology. While websites were blocked by simple methods in the past, more advanced and multi-purpose technologies have been used since 2014 in order to make blocking more effective.

The most important of these is called Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) through which all the data you send to your internet service provider can be examined. This allows authorities to block specific content rather than a whole website. This technology can be used to read and analyse all your unencrypted data and to intervene when needed.

Apart from DPI, the Turkey’ Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK) sometimes uses innovative but dangerous methods such as a kind of certification.

Normally, when you enter a secure website, the address begins with ‘https://’ and it shows that your browser has established a secure connection with this website. In order to make this connection secure, the certificate should be confirmed by an internationally recognised institution.

However, the BTK has produced an insecure certificate for pages that show a website has been blocked and since your internet browser does not recognise it as a secure certificate, you see an error code.

Since an ordinary internet user cannot understand the reason behind the error code, the method disguises the fact that the website is blocked.

Internet censorship also sometimes can lead to users putting their own security and privacy at risk without being aware.

In Turkey, nearly everyone needs to circumvent blocks for different reasons. This may be because they want to reach a news site, or look for information on Wikipedia, or see a GIF on imgur.com.

Though there are secure ways of doing it, more simple and free methods that are more attractive to users also bring potential risks and dangers.

Most of the free VPN and proxy services can access all your internet traffic and may interfere with it and collect information on everything you do. Most of the free of charge services make money in that way. While you believe you have found a way to access blocked sites without paying, the companies providing those services money by using your data or by causing unwanted things to happen to your computer by interfering the websites you visit.

Many internet users do not research providers, but use the first free VPN services they find. Secure applications are lost in the sea of hundreds of misleading and dangerous sites, which often come out first in searches.

Many people trust such applications when they see them on top and start using them. Of course those who claim that they censor websites in order to “protect citizens” are not aware of the dangers they create for the unwary seeking to bypass censorship.

We cannot talk of progress in an environment in which people cannot access and discuss information freely, where authorities censor everything they do not like and users risk their own security to access information. The fact that we find ourselves discussing those problems while the rest of the world moves forward is testament to the situation we are in.