Turks turn to VPN services after social media bill passes

Panama-based virtual private network (VPN) service provider NordVPN has seen significant recent growth from users in Turkey after the country passed a bill imposing severe restrictions on social media.

“At NordVPN we're noticing a 20 percent growth in interest from Turkey,” the company’s Head of Public Relations Laura Tyrell said in a tweet on Friday. “Whenever a government announces any type of internet restrictions - people turn to VPNs. Keep internet free!”

NordVPN, based in Panama due to the country’s lack of mandatory data retention laws, is one of the few VPN services that can still be accessed from Turkey.

In 2016, an amendment to the country’s law on online publications made it mandatory for internet service providers (ISPs) to “take precautions to block alternative paths of access to publications that have been banned from access”.

Based on this amendment, the Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK) ordered all ISPs in the country, including mobile phone operators, to ban several prominent VPN companies.

The BTK based its decision on a need to stop users bypassing Turkey’s measures for throttling, where the bandwidth allocated to a website is reduced to the extent that pages time out and are rendered inaccessible.

Reuters reported Turkey as using throttling techniques after a bombing in Istanbul’s now-defunct Atatürk Airport in 2016. Turkey denied the claims.

Later that year, access from outside Turkey to Ekşi Sözlük, one of Turkey’s most popular social media platforms, was blocked for several hours by Türk Telekom, the country’s formerly state-owned telecommunications company, the platform’s founder Sedat Kapanoğlu said.

NordVPN has seen similar spikes from Turkey three times in the last five years, technology news website Telecoms reported.

A statement by the company said, “President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s plan to control social media platforms or to ban access to them completely has succeeded,” as cited by Deutsche Welle Turkish.

With the new legislation passed earlier this week, social media companies with more than one million users must appoint a legal representative in Turkey to address the authorities' concerns over content and includes deadlines for its removal.

Companies could face fines, blocked advertisements or have their bandwidth slashed by up to 90 percent, essentially blocking access.

Social network providers would have 48 hours to respond to orders to remove offensive content.

Tyrell also said internet restrictions “threaten the idea of democracy itself,” and journalists and rights defenders “are put at risk, unable to exercise their implicit abilities to safeguard the right to be informed,” technology news website Vanilla Plus reported.

The PR director pointed out that restrictions could harm tourism, which generated $34.5 billion in revenue - more than 12 percent of the country’s GDP - in 2019.

“Tourists will be left without access to services they are used to,” Tyrell said. “This alone might make them reconsider their plans of visiting the country.”

Tourism revenue has already fallen significantly due to the ongoing global coronavirus pandemic, and may not recover in time to make up for the losses as the European Union has not included Turkey in a list of countries deemed safe for travel.