If Tayyip Erdogan didn’t know who Barbra Streisand was before, he sure does now after his efforts to ban Twitter went awry over the weekend. If case you missed it, the Turkish Prime Minister enacted a block of the messaging service on Thursday evening. He hasn’t been a fan of Twitter since someone posted an audio recording of him last month apparently talking about hiding large sums of money. “I don’t care what the international community says at all. Everyone will see the power of the Turkish Republic,” he said in regards to the ban.
Well, the republic doesn’t seem too powerful as Turkish Twitter users quickly figured out how to circumvent the ban by simply changing some of their internet settings. Helpful graffiti even sprung up to advise users on how to do so.
The result: Twitter use in Turkey actually went up over the weekend by an estimated 138 per cent. It’s a textbook case of the Streisand effect, or what happens when someone tries to hide information on the internet (the phenomenon is named after the entertainer’s backfired attempts in 2003 to suppress photos of her house). Erdogan’s ban thus failed in spectacular fashion.
I happened to be having a beer on Thursday night with one of the principals behind SurfEasy, a Toronto-based virtual private network provider, when he got news that the company had just signed up 5,000 new customers based in Turkey. The situation is apparently providing a big business boon to many such VPN companies, with the likes of HotSpot Shield reporting a month’s worth of downloads in just 12 hours following the ban. TunnelBear, also based in Toronto, says it has signed up more than 300,000 Turkish users over the past four days.
Erdogan has since raised the ante on his ban, moving the blocking up to the internet protocol address level. That’s keeping people from accessing Twitter through simply changing their settings, but it isn’t stopping VPNs, which effectively encrypt users’ traffic and mask where they are based.
Of course, that raises the question: will Turkey eventually ban such tools as well?
There are several reasons why that would be a foolish move. For one, many companies rely on VPNs to conduct business and to protect sensitive information. A blanket ban would expose such data to all manner of theft, espionage, hacking and other nefarious activities, which is why most sane governments in the world have resisted taking such a plunge (note: this obviously does not include Iran).
A more targeted VPN ban – say, for non-commercial users – is always a possibility, but a legislated enforcement of a digital divide is something that would certainly stoke the public’s revolutionary fires. Also, the European Union – which Turkey would still very much like to join – would probably frown upon such a move. Put it all together and Erdogan looks to be stuck in a no-win situation. Either Twitter persists, or he faces a major public backlash that would have a very real chance of turning violent.
The situation does raise questions about the future of VPN services, even in democratic countries. In the freer parts of the world, people are using them to either avoid being spied on by their governments or to circumvent copyright restrictions (aka the American Netflix phenomenon). Both forces have reasons to push back and they indeed already look to be doing so, as with the controversy last year over Visa and Mastercard possibly dropping payments from some VPN providers.
VPN companies may look to have a bright future in light of all the government spying revelations, but I can’t help but wonder how long they’re going to be able to do what they do without someone cracking down on them.