On January 17th, the Vienna-based Chronicles of Turkmenistan reported new government blocking measures that saw VPN users lose Internet-connection on their cell phones upon opening the offending apps.
VPNs can grant citizens access to the many blocked social media sites and news outlets in the country, but once the lockdown occurs, users are apparently left with no choice but to buy a new Sim card.
The government-owned Turkmentelecom is the only ISP in Turkmenistan, meaning that it is subject to strict censorship. Altyn Asyr, also owned by Turkmentelecom, is the sole mobile operator in the country, which may explain how crackdowns are happening at Sim-level.
This comes at the same time as access to the Google Play Store is restricted. While there is no official statement to confirm that the two are linked, there’s a strong possibility that they are as citizens often download VPN apps directly from it.
It’s unclear what may have initiated this new bout of censorship, particularly since VPNs have been banned in the country since 2015, but political reasons are often at the core of Turkmenistan’s repressive internet control measures.
According to the Freedom House 2018 report, alongside the Google Play Store, Turkmentelecom also denies users access to websites that “carry independent news coverage or opposition-oriented content”. Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter are also inaccessible without the use of a VPN.
Citizens caught using a VPN or proxy server are reportedly subject to “administrative penalties” and summonable for “preventive conversations” with the Ministry of National Security, where they face intimidation, states a paper written by members of the Turkmenistan Civic Solidarity Group to the United Nations Human Rights Committee.
There is a lot of confusion surrounding Turkmenistan’s VPN ban, but it’s not the only country to do so; China, Russia, Iran, and a handful of others restrict and even outlaw its usage.
VPN crackdowns and social media blackouts are common occurrences in high-censorship countries during times of significant political activity or unrest.
Some VPNs still work well despite the bans as they use special obfuscation tools to mask VPN traffic as normal HTTPS traffic, allowing it to go undetected by government censors.