We have confirmed that Internet service providers in Turkey have been blocking ProtonMail this week. Here’s what we know so far, and some ways to bypass the block.
Our support team first became aware of connectivity problems for Turkish ProtonMail users starting on Tuesday. After further investigation, we determined that protonmail.com was unreachable for both Vodafone Turkey mobile and fixed line users. Since then, we have also received some sporadic reports from users of other Turkish ISPs. At one point, the issue was prevalent in every single major city in Turkey. After investigating the issue along with members of the ProtonMail community in Turkey, we have confirmed this is a government-ordered block rather than a technical glitch. Internet censorship in Turkey tends to be fluid so the situation is constantly evolving. 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.
With the assistance of ProtonMail users within Turkey, we were able to do a deeper, technical analysis of the issue from within Turkey. First, we discovered that Proton IPs were in fact still reachable, and traceroutes were succeeding. Instead, it appears that ISP DNS servers have simply stopped resolving protonmail.com, or were in other cases returning incorrect results.
This is consistent with how internet censorship is typically performed in Turkey. As part of ProtonMail’s anti-censorship efforts (and as part of the work we do at ProtonVPN, our free VPN service), we actively perform research on the censorship techniques used by different regimes. In Turkey, DNS blocking is the predominant method of blocking. Turkish ISPs have even gone as far as to conduct local DNS poisoning, and to intercept requests going to well-known DNS servers, such as Google’s public DNS server. 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.
We have contacted both Vodafone Group (the UK-based parent company) and Vodafone Turkey, but so far neither has commented on the incident. However, ProtonMail users are everywhere in Turkey — some even work for Vodafone Turkey or the Turkish government — and we are working to escalate this behind the scenes to get approval for ProtonMail to be unblocked. These same sources were also able to disclose that ProtonMail was swept up in a concerted action launched on March 12th, 2018 against a number of services, not just ProtonMail.
If this is indeed a case of government-ordered censorship, it would not be the first time this has happened in Turkey. In recent years, the Turkish government has ordered ISPs to block tens of thousands of websites, from news outlets to atheist sites and even Wikipedia, for content that contradicts government propaganda. Sometimes these blocks are temporary, such as its throttling of Facebook and Twitter, while others are long-lasting.
— Bülent Köstem (@BulentKostem) March 14, 2018
I can confirm that @ProtonMail website, as well as @ProtonVPN website and the @ProtonMail ios app is blocked from Turkey: https://t.co/gVyaJYzahG Please note that several other VPN providers are also currently blocked from Turkey.
— Yaman Akdeniz (@cyberrights) March 16, 2018
This has come as part of a broader government clampdown on politicians, journalists, and human rights activists. More journalists are imprisoned in Turkey than any other country, including much larger China. News media have been shut down and reopened under government control. In one noteworthy case, the director of Amnesty International Turkey was arrested last summer along with other activists and is still being held in pre-trial detention.
ProtonMail, of course, is widely known for being an obstacle for governments that wish to violate the privacy rights of their citizens. As the world’s largest encrypted email provider, ProtonMail’s mission is to protect the universal right to privacy that all citizens are entitled to. In this way, we also protect freedom of speech, which is essential for democracy to survive and thrive. One of the most effective ways to suppress freedom is to remove access to services such as ProtonMail.
Today, Vodafone Turkey controls 31.2% of the mobile internet market in Turkey and is a leading fixed-line ISP operating in 81 cities. The company is owned by Vodafone Group, a British multinational that provides telecommunications services in countries around the world. Unfortunately, Vodafone has a history of complying with the demands from authoritarian governments to shut down or block internet access. While for Vodafone this is merely a business decision, the consequences are far reaching. In this case, it is denying millions of people their right to online privacy, and helping to perpetuate the same system that made this possible in the first place.
Bypassing government censorship of ProtonMail
Because of ProtonMail’s unique mission to protect online freedom and ensure freedom of speech in the digital age, we have long anticipated that certain governments who act contrary to these values will be interested in denying access to ProtonMail and ProtonVPN. We view this as a serious threat, and we focus a lot of development effort on technologies to circumvent such blocks. Below is a list of techniques to circumvent online censorship if ProtonMail is blocked. Because the situation is constantly changing, some of these recommendations could stop working at any time.
Use a VPN service like ProtonVPN
VPNs remain one of the best ways to bypass censorship, and ProtonMail provides ProtonVPN for free in order to ensure people around the world can have access to an uncensored internet. When you use a VPN, all your internet traffic, including DNS requests, is routed through an encrypted tunnel to a VPN server, meaning that ISP IP and DNS blocks can be bypassed. You can get ProtonVPN for free here.
However, VPNs are not always effective and can be blocked. If ProtonVPN becomes blocked, we suggest trying the public servers at VPNGate. It is possible however, to block all VPN services (and Turkey is currently attempting to ban all VPN services), in which case, there are a few other circumvention techniques.
Switch DNS servers
ProtonMail is currently being blocked at the DNS level, which means the block can be circumvented by using different DNS servers instead of the ones provided by default by Vodafone. A list of free alternative DNS servers can be found online here.
Using any of those should allow the DNS block to be bypassed. Guides for setting a custom DNS for your operating system can be found below:
Tor is an invaluable tool for bypassing online censorship and staying anonymous online. The Turkish government has also been trying to ban Tor, but using Tor Bridges has so far still been an effective method of circumventing online censorship. Guides for using Tor Bridge can be found online here and here.
ProtonMail has long been a supporter of the Tor project, and we are one of the only Tor email services in the world, with a fully functioning Tor hidden service at protonirockerxow.onion. More information about how to connect to our Tor hidden service can be found here.
ProtonMail will continue to fight censorship on all fronts, and our commitment to this cause is the reason why we operate ProtonVPN, the only completely free VPN service that has no bandwidth limitations and does not sell or exploit user data. Despite the costs, we firmly believe that providing services like ProtonMail and ProtonVPN for free is essential for building a better future.
We, as individuals, are also not powerless against the forces that may seek to limit freedom and democracy. Through our choices (and our wallets), we can hold companies like Vodafone, and even governments, accountable for acting in the best interests of the people they serve. Slowly but surely, the global Proton user community is already doing that, and while challenges like this are bound to arise, the fact that we are being targeted also means that we are on the right track. To our users in Turkey, thank you for your continued support and understanding as we work on getting the block lifted.
The ProtonMail Team