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Toronto tech firm helps circumvent Turkey’s Twitter ban

Members of the Turkish Youth Union hold cartoons depicting Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a protest against a ban on Twitter, in Ankara, Turkey.
Members of the Turkish Youth Union hold cartoons depicting Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a protest against a ban on Twitter, in Ankara, Turkey. AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici

TORONTO – Hundreds of thousands of Twitter users in Turkey are using free Virtual Private Network (VPN) services from Toronto-based company Tunnel Bear to circumvent a Twitter ban instated by the government last week.

The company, which provides a VPN service for users around the world, made the decision to open up its services for Turkish users after hearing of the ban, in an effort to protest Internet censorship.

“We were all in the office working late and saw on Twitter that it had been blocked in Turkey,” Tunnel Bear co-founder Ryan Dochuk told Global News Monday.

“Immediately emails and tweets flooded into our service to let us know that the government had once again blocked Twitter and asking for help. Within minutes of the announcement we saw a huge flood of traffic to our service.”

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According to Dochuk, the company signed up almost 60,000 Turkish users within the first day of the ban – over the weekend that number grew to over 250,000.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan banned the social network Friday after users began tweeting about recordings that allegedly incriminate Erdogan and other officials.

It appears that Turkish Internet providers are blocking the website by changing the numeric Internet Protocol (IP) address associated with Twitter.com.

READ MORE: How can citizens circumvent a Twitter ban?

Think of the domain name system as an Internet phone book. When you type in Twitter.com, your computer looks up the numeric IP address for Twitter’s website and takes you there. Turkish service providers can steer users away from the website by putting an incorrect IP address for Twitter.com in their domain name servers.

Users can get around this by using VPN services like Tunnel Bear to encrypt all of the traffic between their computer and the Internet.

Tunnel Bear’s service allows users to “tunnel” around censorship by using the Internet from the country of their choice to access websites that may be blocked in their country. For example, users in Canada could select “United States” as their country of choice in the app to watch U.S.-based content.

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In this case, Turkish users can tunnel all Twitter URL’s through another country to access the site.

The application – which is available on Windows desktop, Mac desktop, and iOS and Android devices – is offered for free for 500MB of data per month, or for a monthly fee for unlimited browsing.

Tunnel Bear has over two million users in over 175 countries.

Dochuk and his team first became involved with users in Turkey in June 2013, after violent protests prompted the government to block social media sites including Facebook and Twitter. In an effort to help, they opened up their service for free in Turkey for the few days the ban lasted.

But this time around the ban is putting a strain on Tunnel Bear’s service. The team of ten worked throughout the weekend to keep Turkish users online.

READ MORE: Turkey seeks to tighten clampdown on Twitter

“It’s been a very intense weekend for us while we scale to meet the demand. If you can imagine providing bandwidth to a large population is both difficult to manage for a technology perspective, but from a cost perspective as well,” Dochuk said.

Users are being asked to upgrade their accounts if they can in order to fund the company’s efforts in Turkey; however Dochuk admits they will have to consider solutions to help with the stress on their servers if the ban continues for a prolonged period of time.

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