Turkey among countries to benefit from free VPN access to fight censorship

Internet privacy company Proton said Wednesday it would offer a network of free VPN servers for use in a number of countries, including Turkey, holding elections this year that have a history of censorship and repression, Turkish Minute reported, citing Agence France-Presse.

Switzerland-based Proton said its aim was to help local populations circumvent government censorship and to prevent interference or misinformation during the election campaigns.

In a year when around half the global population will head to the polls, Proton said it was vital to provide broad access to virtual private network services, which can be used to skirt internet censorship and freely access information.

Venezuela, South Sudan, Sri Lanka and Turkey are among the countries where the company said it would provide its free servers.

Turkey is scheduled to hold local elections on March 31.

“2024 is set to be a seismic year for democracy around the world,”  Proton chief Andy Yen said in a statement.

“Many of the countries holding elections have a questionable track record for free speech and a free electoral process,” he pointed out.

“Protecting free speech and fighting censorship is a core part of our mission and we’re committed to doing what we can to help voters around the world exercise their fundamental rights.”

Proton, also known for its encrypted email service, said that for two weeks before and after key elections, it would offer free local servers to users who appear to be logging on from the country where the vote is taking place.

The technical implementation will vary depending on the circumstances in the country, the company said.

It pointed out that it could use its “smart routing technology” allowing it to offer VPN servers in countries where it is unable to have a physical presence.

The servers are located in nearby locations but still have the ability to bypass government censorship, it said.

“This means local users will be able to access the free, unfiltered internet at high speeds without servers being overloaded by users from the rest of the world,” Proton said.

The company maintains that tracking demand for its VPN services is a means of early detection of government crackdowns and attacks on free speech.

Proton said it had seen major surges in demand in a number of places over the past 12 months.

It said it had seen demand hikes of 4,700 percent in Nepal, 6,000 percent in Pakistan, 25,000 percent in Gabon and 100,000 percent in Senegal, “all in response to political or civil unrest.”

Joint call against online censorship

Proton’s decision comes in the wake of a joint call from a group of international and local human rights and press advocacy groups to social media companies earlier this week asking them to resist efforts by the Turkish government to impose online censorship ahead of the elections.

Among the groups signing the petition were Human Rights Watch (HRW), ARTICLE 19, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the İstanbul-based Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA), the International Press Institute (IPI) and the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF).

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is notorious for intensifying its efforts to limit internet freedom ahead of elections, which many say prevents people from exercising their right to information and creates an uneven playing field for the opposition.

“Ahead of Türkiye’s municipal elections on March 31, 2024, ARTICLE 19, Human Rights Watch, and 20 other rights groups and journalists’ organizations jointly call on social media platforms to uphold the free expression rights of their users and resist state censorship. They should also fully disclose all government requests to restrict accounts or content and be transparent about informal government pressure to restrict content on their platforms,” the advocacy groups said, while calling on the Turkish government to cease pressuring online platforms to block content.

In a controversial move ahead of the presidential and parliamentary elections in May, X restricted access in Turkey to certain account holders to ensure the platform “[remained] available to the people of Turkey,” seen by critics as giving in to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was seeking re-election.

The company said it was limiting access to some content in Turkey to keep the platform available to all the people in the country.

Turkey, where internet freedom has steadily declined over the past decade, is ranked among the “not free” countries concerning online freedoms, according to a report released by the US-based nonprofit Freedom House in October.

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