Turks Are Flocking to Tor After Government Orders Block of Anti-Censorship Tools

As usual, online censorship seems to have a “Streisand effect” for tools that allow netizens to circumvent blocks.

|
Nov 7 2016, 8:03pm

Image: Nazzu/Shutterstock

Turkish internet users are flocking to Tor, the anonymizing and censorship-circumvention tool, after Turkey's government blocked Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

Usage of Tor inside of Turkey went up from around 18,000 users to 25,000 users on Friday, when the government started blocking the popular social media networks, according to Tor's official metrics. To prevent Turks from doing exactly that and connecting to the blocked sites through censorship-circumvention tools such as Tor and Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), the government took a step further and ordered internet providers to block those too.

Read more: The Internet Doesn't Route Around Surveillance

This move seems to have affected the number of people connecting to the Tor network, as the numbers of reported users went down after Friday. But Tor offers an alternative method of connection precisely made for cases like this, called "bridge relays" or simply bridges. These make it harder for internet providers to know you're using Tor, making it also harder, in turn, to stop you from using it.

Usage of Tor bridges has shoot up in the last few days in Turkey, according to Tor's metrics.

It's unclear if internet providers are already effectively blocking Tor—or any other circumvention tool. The increase in the usage of bridges, and the decrease in direct connections, could be a sign that, in fact, they are.

While it's hard to say whether the sudden decline in direct connections is due to the government's block, "people use bridges when there is a problem, since it's more convenient to connect directly," Nima Fatemi, an independent security researcher and a core member of Tor Project, told Motherboard in an online chat.

"It seems Tor direct connections are flaky. But it's hard to say why. It all depends on the methods they're using for censorship," he added.

Ahmet A. Sabancı, a researcher and journalist who lives in Istanbul, Turkey, said that it seems the internet providers are in a "planning stage," as it appears that VPNs are working fine.

"I believe the government just sent the order and didn't give any guide about how to do it," Sabancı told Motherboard in an online chat via Twitter. "And now ISPs trying to figure it out."

Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.