Turkish gov’t blocks encrypted email service ProtonMail, VPNs

Turkish authorities have blocked the use of ProtonMail, the world’s largest encrypted email service, tech website Gizmodo reported, with the company saying in a statement on Thursday that it became aware of connectivity problems for users in Turkey on Tuesday and confirmed there had been no technical glitch.

According to a report by online news outlet Ahval, “Internet censorship in Turkey tends to be fluid so the situation is constantly evolving,” ProtonMail said. “Sometimes ProtonMail is accessible, and sometimes it is unreachable. For the first time ever though, we have confirmed that ProtonMail was subject to a block, and could face further issues in the future.”

Given the security of the system employed by ProtonMail, it has become a popular means of communication for dissidents and journalists working in difficult conditions. Both of these groups have become targets of a crackdown by Turkish authorities.

ProtonMail, a mobile app available worldwide and based in Switzerland, said the use of a technique called DNS blocking was confirmed with the assistance of Turkish users.

“The type of DNS blocking that has been performed against ProtonMail very much fits the modus operandi of the Turkish government’s online censorship efforts,” the company said. ProtonMail also published advice on how to bypass the blocking of its site in Turkey, using either VPN services or by changing DNS provider.

Turkish online news outlet Diken has also reported on Friday that Turkish government has strengthened its hold over internet access in the country by blocking networks used to access banned websites. The banning of 20 Virtual Private Networks, or VPNs, coincided with the decision to block access to ProtonMail.

By blocking the use of 20 VPNs, which allow users to circumvent restrictions, Turkish authorities have reduced the means by which citizens were accessing banned sites. Internet freedom has sharply declined in Turkey in recent years, with independent watchdog Freedom House classifying Turkey as “not free” in its Freedom on the Net 2017 report.

The Turkish government passed a legal amendment in 2014 granting it the power to block any website within four hours and without first seeking a court ruling. It has made frequent use of this authority, banning websites as seemingly-innocuous as Wikipedia, and frequently blocking social media sites including Facebook, YouTube and WhatsApp. Another censorship law was passed February 2018 that opposition lawmakers described as “draconian.”

The Turkish government has also criminalised the ByLock mobile phone messaging application in the wake of a controversial military coup attempt on July 15, 2016. Turkish authorities believe that ByLock is a communication tool among alleged followers of the Gülen movement. Tens of thousands of people, including civil servants, police officers, soldiers, businessmen and even housewives, have either been dismissed or arrested for using ByLock since July 2016. (SCF with Ahval)

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