Turkish Twitterati Boost Apps That Skirt Web BansAmy Thomson and Mehul Srivastava
A bid to limit political debate in Turkey by shutting off Twitter ended yesterday. If Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan goes after the micro-blogging site again, Azima Ak says she’ll be ready.
Like millions of others in Turkey, the 25-year-old downloaded a program to her phone that hides her identity and lets her skirt the ban shortly after Erdogan on March 20 ordered the country’s Internet providers to block Twitter. Given the surge in such downloads in the past two weeks, the most important effect of Erdogan’s effort may have been a dramatic increase in the number of Turks who know how to get around government restrictions online.
“It’s the Internet, and you can’t hide anything there,” Ak said to nods of approval from friends as she took a swig of beer outside an Istanbul bar. “I will keep using this.”
More than a million people in Turkey downloaded the software Ak uses, Hotspot Shield, in the three days after the government banned access to Twitter as the site had become a forum for publishing corruption allegations. Hotspot Shield, made by a California company called AnchorFree Inc., quickly became the top download in the Turkish Apple Inc. app store.
Erdogan’s ban on Twitter and later YouTube gave a lift to Hotspot Shield and other companies that make virtual private networks. These programs, called VPNs, disguise a user’s location by making Web traffic appear to come from another country. A provider called HideMyAss, which offered free access in Turkey during the ban, says it saw a 900 percent increase in downloads there in the last two weeks, to almost 200,000 a day.
Ak’s act of defiance -- she called it civil disobedience -- underscores the futility of government efforts from China to Venezuela to control what citizens can see on the Internet.
Turkey’s ban was “completely impractical,” said Danvers Baillieu, the chief operating officer of Privax Ltd., the London company that sells HideMyAss. “No country that wants to take part in the modern world can censor the Internet successfully.”
VPNs began as a way for corporations to protect employee communications, and many Americans living overseas now use them to watch movies on Netflix Inc. and similar streaming services that fence off access country by country. In recent years, they’ve been widely adopted by people in places like Iran, China and Pakistan seeking to reach blocked sites such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.
“Freedom is part of our business model,” said David Gorodyansky, CEO of AnchorFree, which has seen 200 million downloads of its Hotspot Shield software globally. “Our mission at a high level is to provide secure access to information for every person on the planet.”
There’s also money in it. While Hotspot Shield offers a basic version application for smartphones, a faster “elite” version costs $29.95 a year. HideMyAss charges $78.66 annually for its “Pro VPN” service. A competitor called Get Cloak runs $9.99 a month.
Erdogan imposed the ban after a pair of Twitter accounts operated by anonymous users started publishing links to documents the government had sought to suppress. They included voice recordings, some purportedly from police wiretaps, and called into question everything from the financial probity and religious piety of Erdogan’s ministers and family to the integrity of Turkey’s foreign policy and the independence of its media.
The ban was lifted after a constitutional court ruled April 2 that the restrictions violated free speech laws. The same day, another court issued a travel ban on two Turks -- a journalist and an ex-police officer -- accused by the government of operating the account that published the documents. It was unclear how they were unmasked, and Twitter said it had not provided Turkey with any identifying information.
Erdogan today said he doesn’t “respect” the ruling that ended the ban, though he took no steps to reimpose restrictions. He told reporters that the court decision protects a U.S. company while “our national moral values are ignored.”
The whole affair didn’t hurt Erdogan in local elections across Turkey on March 30. His party won 45 percent of the votes in mayoral races, and the prime minister sees the mandate as a rejection of the allegations of corruption exploding on Twitter and reverberating throughout the country.
Governments like Erdogan’s are engaging in a cat-and-mouse game with citizens and technology companies that help them subvert censorship online, said Dave Peck, founder of VPN provider Get Cloak.
“Ultimately, for every decision we make that helps customers in Turkey or Iran or China get around their firewall, there’s a position that their government could take to shut us down,” said Peck, who says his company has seen a “minor spike” in usage in Turkey. “It really seems to be a competition of political willpower and technical firepower.”