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You’re going to Turkey on holiday. Or you’ve been sent there to work. Or you live there. And, like an increasing number of people around the world, you rely on the internet for news, entertainment and to stay in touch with your friends. You’ll be glad to know, then, that the Turkish Constitution says that freedom of speech and freedom of communication are inalienable rights. They are yours, and they can’t be taken away from you. That’s fantastic news, isn’t it? It means you can watch anything you like and say anything you want without fear. Marvelous!
Unfortunately, it isn’t quite like that in practice. When the Constitution says you have the right to say what you like and read anything, it doesn’t actually add the words, “just so long as what you want to say and what you want to read coincide with what the government in Ankara wants you to say and read.” The words aren’t there on the page, but they might as well be. If you talk about the Turkish president in the kind of derogatory terms which many Americans say in public about Donald Trump, and many British people say about Boris Johnson, with no fear of repercussions, you’re likely to find yourself in jail, no matter what it says in the Constitution. As for casting doubt on any aspect of Turkey’s official religion and the way it’s administered, or perhaps suggesting that not every single person in Kurdistan is out to lay waste to the remains of the Ottoman Empire, and some of them just want to get on with their lives in a spirit of co-operation and live-and-let-live; forget it. You’ll be committing an offence, and you can expect to be punished for it.
You can also forget about reading many independent news websites. Or even many news websites which aren’t independent, but don’t stick close to the line approved by the government. Law No 5651, also known as the Internet Law of Turkey but whose actual title is the rather long-winded Law on Regulation of Publications on the Internet and Suppression of Crimes Committed by means of Such Publication, is regularly used to get the courts to close down locally-based news and social media sites, that either don’t say what the government wants them to say, or they allow such things to be said. It’s also used to ban access in Turkey to foreign social media and news websites, and that law has been used many times; there’s no point in saying here how many sites are currently banned in Turkey, because the number will almost certainly have increased a few weeks from now, but it’s already large enough and widespread enough that some of the sites you want to visit are almost certainly on the list.
And you can rest assured that a bot somewhere in Turkey is reading your emails, both incoming and outgoing, looking for keywords which will mean they should be referred to a human security officer. You may intend nothing sinister; perhaps just mentioning that you didn’t care for the way the man in front of you waiting for a bus was taken away, will be enough to identify you as a threat to the state’s peaceful existence. It could be something as simple as saying that you were unable to have a smoke at your favorite pavement restaurant table because it’s Ramadan; you’ve given offence.
Is there anything you can do? Well, yes, there is. You can situate your laptop, smartphone or tablet in another country. One with fewer legal constraints on what you can see, what you can read, and what you can say. Scandinavia, perhaps. The USA. Great Britain.
Yes, at first sight, it seems ridiculous. You are here in Turkey. If your laptop is in Sweden, how on earth are you supposed to use it? Your arms just aren’t that long.
And that’s where a VPN comes in. VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. If your smartphone, tablet or laptop is running a VPN app, it looks for all the world (and to all the world, and particularly, in this case, to Turkey) as though it’s in the country in which the VPN app is based. Except that it doesn’t; it doesn’t look as though it’s anywhere. The good people in the state security offices in Ankara can’t even see it. They don’t know you’re using it at all. It’s invisible, and so are the emails you send and receive. And as for the websites you want to look at, you can view, respond to and comment on any website that can be read in the country hosting the VPN app. Which, if you’ve made a sensible choice, means any website.
The first thing you have to do is choose your VPN provider. That’s an essential part of the task, and we’ll come to it shortly. Once you’ve established a safe connection to a server run by the chosen VPN provider, everything going in and out of your computer, your “traffic”, is transformed. The app you downloaded from the VPN provider and installed on your device encrypts your data. Now, no-one can read it who doesn’t have the decryption key, and the only people who have that are the VPN provider. Your encrypted data goes via a secure connection to the VPN server, which decrypts it before placing it on the internet. Let’s say it’s an email. The VPN server sends it in its decrypted form to the person you wanted to receive it. That person reads it. Their reply, should they send one, does not go directly to you; instead, it goes back to the VPN server, which encrypts it before sending it back to your computer, where it will be decrypted by the VPN app. What has been the benefit of all this encrypting and decrypting? This; that you have been able to send and receive emails which could not be intercepted by any hacker or government body, who could not have read it even if they had been able to intercept it! You have sent and received emails from inside a country that likes to read your emails, and you have prevented them from doing so.
Nor is it only a question of emails. You can also surf the internet anonymously. How does that work? Like this. Every single device connected to the internet has something called an IP address. It has to; without an address, the internet would not know where you were. It’s no different in that way from what internet users like to call your “snail mail” address; that is, the name or number of the house or apartment where you live, accompanied by the name of the street, the name of the town or village, the county, the country and whatever kind of postcode your country operates. Without those things, it’s unlikely that anything sent to you from anywhere more than half a kilometer away will reach you. The same is true of the internet except that, without an IP address, the sender could be sitting in the same room as you; you still won’t receive anything they send.
The result is that, when you go online and look at a website, anyone with an interest knows what your IP address is, and therefore where (and who) you are. “Anyone with an interest” is likely to include the owners of the website, but may very well also include one of those bodies that governments set up to spy on their citizens. We are not using “spy” here in any derogatory sense; it’s merely a fact that some of the things which appear on the internet make it necessary for governments to take an interest, solely in order to keep their country safe. So there it is; surf the web and your IP address will reveal your identity.
So don’t use your IP address! When you are online running a VPN app, the IP address seen by the website you’re looking at, and by any hacker or government body with an interest in that website, isn’t yours. It’s an IP address which has been allocated by the VPN provider. They know who you are, but no-one else does and, if you’ve chosen the right VPN provider, they aren’t going to tell anyone. You are anonymous. And there will be times, even for the most conscientious and law-abiding web surfer, when it’s good to know that you’re anonymous. Even if the reason is something as simple as the fact that you respect privacy, your own, and other people’s, and you expect others to do the same.
One question you may be asking is how different your web surfing and emailing experience will feel when you use a VPN. And the answer is, it won’t feel any different at all. You will send and receive emails and visit websites in precisely the way you would with no VPN.
There’s also the question of security. You probably have all sorts of information on your computer or entered into it from time to time. Information such as passwords, debit card and credit card numbers, addresses; your own, and other people’s. Anyone else on the same network as you may be able to access that information. And you can take it for granted that anyone who wants to find out your passwords and credit card numbers does not have your best interests in mind. Using a VPN closes this access route to hostile elements.
An increasing number of companies are setting up VPNs for their employees to use, so that everyone in the company, (and no-one outside it), has access to confidential company files, and employees can email each other without fear of their emails being read by a competitor.
One more reason for using a VPN is to gain access to something which is denied to you on the grounds of your geographic location for commercial reasons. For example, you may find that a streaming website has a movie that you very much want to watch, but it isn’t available in Turkey, or wherever else you happen to be, because the rights to show it there have been sold to someone else. No problem! Just tell your VPN provider that you want to use a server in a country in which the movie is available. Then you can watch it because the streaming website thinks that particular country is where you are.
The answer to the second question is that it’s up to you, though we are about to give you some guidance to individual providers. And the answer to the first question is, you follow the instructions given you by your VPN provider. (If you’re joining a company VPN, their IT department will tell you what you have to do. However, bear in mind that the company VPN will not cover everything you do on your device, and you can still have a separate VPN for personal use).
Possibly the first thing to say is, don’t choose a provider based in a country such as China, (or Turkey, for that matter), where they will be required by law to collaborate with the government in observing what those governments think of as law-abiding behavior, and what most people will see as a grotesque invasion of privacy. You could do a lot worse than consider some of the following:
Based in Sweden, so you don’t need to worry about government interference. The Swedes wrote the book on privacy and the rights of the citizen. It’s highly secure, access is 24/7 and prices are reasonable. They have servers in sixty different countries, and reviews from users suggest that the app is easy to install and easy to use, and there is excellent customer support. You can talk to them by email and live chat and, if it comes to it, they will take charge of your computer to fix any problems (and you can watch everything they do, step-by-step).
They’re in Romania, though the software team is in Germany. If streaming is your primary purpose in using a VPN, this may well be the app to go with. Supported by chat or email, pricing is attractive if you go for the eighteen-month plan, there are nearly 6000 servers worldwide, and you can connect up to seven devices at the same time.
These guys carry anonymity to its limits because, if you want to write to them, you do so through a Panama address, though the company is very much Scandinavian. A very complex software offering is hidden by a straightforward interface which is easy to set up and easy to use. This is many people’s preferred VPN provider and, if we were in the business of making firm recommendations, might possibly even be ours.
Their website says they are in Singapore. Well, of course, they are, perhaps. Let’s not forget that their fundamental purpose is to help people appear to be somewhere they are not. Starting with themselves. They’ve been around a few years, and one of their claims to fame is that they introduced split tunneling, although it’s in widespread use now. What split tunneling allows you to do, is to decide which data you want to go through your VPN, and which is okay to be handled in the usual way. This can be useful if you have concerns about the authorities wondering why you never seem to use that laptop or phone they’ve seen you carrying around. Yes, ideas like that suggest you may be paranoid, but there is a long-standing joke about that. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. And anyone in Turkey who isn’t nursing at least a touch of paranoia right now simply hasn’t been paying attention to what this article has been saying. Ivacy have more than a thousand servers scattered around the world, you can attach up to five devices at the same time, and the two-year plan is particularly attractive, price-wise. They’ve also won a bunch of awards.
You can attach up to five devices. The clue to this provider is in the name; it’s extremely fast as well as being very reliable. Servers are in 160 locations around the world.
Really, that’s up to you. We’ve introduced five of the best VPN providers in the world, but there are others. They are frequently in price competition with each other, so shop around, but don’t make your decision only on price. That is rarely the way to get the best solution to your specific problem, and it won’t be in this case. Look at where they are, look at the features they offer (and the devices, browsers, and operating systems they support) and decide which is the closest fit with what you want. Most, if not all of them, offer a thirty-day unquestioned money-back guarantee, so at least you’ll know you’re not making a decision which will bind you forever if you find that a different provider might have been better.