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The Most-Downloaded App in Turkey Lets Users Beat the Twitter Ban

AnchorFree's aim is to make every website you store information on "as secure as your bank."

by Brian Merchant
Mar 21 2014, 8:45pm

Twitter has been "eradicated" in Turkey, to quote the country's social media-hating prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But apparently, for Erdogan, eradication amounts to a simple, easily circumvented DNS block. In other words, when an internet user tries to access Twitter, the government prevents the query from reaching local server providers. Turks were outraged by the symbolic nature of Erdogan's "ban," but well prepared to fly in its face. Hundreds of thousands registered their protest on Twitter, naturally, because getting around the "ban" was as easy as downloading an app. 

Many embraced VPNs (virtual private networks), which were already well-known to web-literate citizens thanks to the Turkish government's previous internet assaults—a three-year ban on YouTube began in 2007, for instance. Others simply changed their DNS settings, and spread the word with street graffiti and clever hacks to show others how to do it.  

Jennifer Hattam, a freelance journalist living in Istanbul and the brains behind @TheTurkishLife, told me that Hotspot Shield, Tunnelbear, Onavo Protect, and were among the most frequently recommended VPNs today.

AnchorFree's Hotspot Shield app appears to be the most popular. According to CEO David Gorodyansky, it has been installed 270,000 times in Turkey in the last twelve hours alone—up from 10,000 daily downloads before. It was enough to push it to the top of the iTunes download store. 

My colleague Tim Pool, who's currently on the ground reporting in Turkey, confirms that "everyone is using it." He says that while he's using Tunnelbear, HotSpot Shield is the "trendy" choice, perhaps for its ease of use.

"You don't need to be tech savvy," Gorodyanksy said. "You just download it, install it, and use it. You don't need an account, you don't even need a user name." The free version (there's an Elite app that costs $4.99, and comes with extra features) automatically locates an alternative server outside of the blocked country, and encrypts any data sent over the network. 

This perhaps explains why HotSpot Shield is the "number one" VPN app, as Gorodyanksy boasts. (It is also a favorite for users seeking to create and surf securely over private wifi hotspots, for travelers abroad looking to access servers back home, and, he adds, for individuals to protect their location when they use dating apps.) But it is perhaps most recognized today for its involvement in meeting revolutionary internet demands.

"Hotspot Shield has played a heavy role in pretty much every revolution we've seen in the last five years," he said. In Egypt, downloads leapt from 100,000 to 1,000,000 in a single day after internet access was threatened. Gorodyanksy also notes the app's encryption services, which may prove equally important to dissidents in Istanbul and beyond, considering Turkey has a policy on file to collect and store its citizens internet histories for two years.

AnchorFree's aim is to make every website you store information on "as secure as your bank."

"We want to be the leading force for freedom and privacy in the world," Gorodyanksy said. AnchorFree makes money from the sales of the Elite version, and from the banner ads served over the page. In 2012, Goldman Sachs invested $52 million in the network, citing a demand for VPNs. 

That demand certainly exists in Turkey. 

"After three years of the YouTube ban and shorter bans on Wordpress, Blogger, Vimeo, and I can't even remember what else, Internet users here are pretty well-versed in their various DNS and VPN options," Hattam told me. As more autocrats threaten to block social media and the internet in general, the necessity and popularity of VPNs will continue to increase. And today, dissidents are downloading HotSpot Shield en masse, and the app is playing a key role in enabling Turkey's citizens to make a mockery of one of history's feeblest attempts to limit modern speech.