Turkey bans access to 16 VPN providers

Image by Arzu Geybullayeva

On December 18, the Information Technologies and Communications Authority (BTK) — Turkey's top telecommunications watchdog — imposed an access ban on 16 VPN providers. Pundits say the goal of the ban is to prevent access to already blocked news websites in the country that were only accessible by using VPN services.

Independent internet watchdogs that document censorship online say over the years, Turkey has blocked hundreds of thousands of websites. This year, according to the most recent internet censorship report by the Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA), an organization providing legal support to journalists and individuals facing trial in freedom of expression cases, “access to at least 35,066 domain names, 3,196 news articles, 2,090 social media posts, and 184 social media accounts were blocked in 2022.”

Turkey has a long history and tradition of blocking content or throttling internet access.

The most common content that is blocked is news articles about the ruling Justice and Development Party, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his family, and individuals and organizations affiliated with the government, party, or president.

In June 2023, Reuters published a report implicating Bilal Erdoğan, 42, the son of Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in a corruption scandal. The following day, 47 tweets, 45 news links, and one YouTube video which shared or re-published the story were blocked for access on grounds of violating personal rights. The Directorate of Communications, slammed the report as baseless, calling it disinformation. Bilal Erdoğan, through a lawyer, called the investigation, “a web of lies.”

Another report released on December 14, 2023, tracked how authorities in Turkey blocked thousands of Twitter URLs on X, formerly known as Twitter. The blocked content included allegations of irregularities concerning public officials; and were blocked on the basis of violating personal rights, protecting national security and public order.

BTK can block sites without a court order, according to Article 8A of the infamous Internet Bill 5651. The article empowers the watchdog to block access to specific content when it poses a danger to national security, public order, etc. The most recent decision was taken on the basis of Article 6, of the same law. This article obligates internet service providers to prevent accessing already blocked websites using alternative means, explained Yaman Akdeniz, Law Professor and founder of the Freedom of Expression Association, in a recent interview with Voice of America.

Akdeniz also found it concerning that the ban was introduced just months ahead of the local elections scheduled to take place in March 2024, projecting the list of banned VPNs will likely increase ahead of the polls. “As we approach local elections, I think the list of these VPN services will grow. Because there are many different VPN services. As far as I understand, the target for now [is to block access to] VPN services popular in Turkey,” warned Akdeniz in an interview with VoA.

The list includes VPN providers such as Proton, Surfshark, Psiphon, TunnelBear, Hotspot Shield, and others.

Some VPN providers noticing the blocking started sharing ways for users to bypass the censorship, offering alternatives:

According to Reporters Without Borders 2023 country report, Turkey is ranked 165th out of 180 countries where “authoritarianism is gaining ground, challenging media pluralism” and “all possible means are used to undermine critics.”

In 2000, the government set up the Telecommunications Authority “to perform the regulatory and supervision duties in the electronic communication sector.” The agency was restructured in 2008, taking on a new name: the Information and Communication Technologies Authority. It operates under the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure.

In 2016, following a failed coup attempt, Turkey shut down the Department of Telecommunications and Communications (TİB) — Turkey’s leading internet censor — and handed all of its authority to the BTK.

In the aftermath of the alleged 2016 coup attempt, the authorities claimed that “TİB was used as a hub for FETÖ [The Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organisation] for surveillance and wiretapping purposes.”

As such, with the new powers, BTK went from being a regulatory body to an authority with surveillance powers that included “the authority to take any measure it deems necessary to uphold ‘national security and public order; prevent crime; protect public health and public morals; or protect the rights and freedoms’ and inform operators, access providers, data centers, hosting providers and content providers of the said measure, who then need to take action within two hours.”

In Turkey, some twenty entities have the power to censor content online, and blocking news websites fully or partially is a common practice. Turkey introduced the infamous Law no. 5651, aka the Internet Bill, in 2007. The bill was amended in 2014, 2015, and 2020 and enables authorities to block access to various websites, individual URLs, Twitter accounts, tweets, YouTube videos, and Facebook content.

Most recently, on December 14, 2023, the BTK blocked the new domain name of a popular website, Ekşi Sözlük (Sour Dictionary), which is a user-contribution-based collaborative hypertext dictionary. The original domain name was blocked for access in February 2023.

This year's Freedom on the Net report, by Freedom House, ranked Turkey “not free.”

Start the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.