1.4 million people used FreeBrowser to circumvent the Great Firewall of Turkmenistan

Since 2021, the authorities in Turkmenistan have taken exceptional measures to crack down on the use of circumvention tools. Citizens have been forced to swear on the Koran that they will not use a VPN. Circumvention tool websites have been systematically blocked. Arbitrary searches of mobile devices have also taken place and have even targeted school children and teachers.

The government has also blocked servers hosting VPNs which led to “near complete” internet shutdowns on several occasions in 2022. Current reports indicate that 66 hosting providers, 19 social networks and messaging platforms, and 10 leading content delivery networks (CDNs), are blocked in the country. The government presumably is unconcerned about the negative economic impact that such shutdowns can cause.

The authorities are not just trying to block outside information from getting into the country, they are also preventing their citizens from sharing information about life in Turkmenistan with the outside world. In August 2022, it was reported that deliberate attempts were made by the authorities to reduce the speed of internet connections.

Like in many countries around the world that practice severe online censorship, while VPNs are deemed to be illegal in Turkmenistan, they are widely used. According to Singapore-based advisory firm Kepios, there are about 2.35 million internet users in Turkmenistan (January 2022). It is believed that the number of internet users in the country has increased rapidly since 2020 because citizens of Turkmenistan were trying to learn more about COVID-19 and wanted to find uncensored information from sources other than local state media.

The Open Technology Fund (OTF), in their most recent annual report, noted that while it is common for authoritarian regimes to place restrictions on circumvention tools during political crises, it is becoming more likely that these politicians decide not to lift these restrictions, even after crises have passed. OTF also notes that the blocking of large global social media platforms has “gone from a China-only exception to an authoritarian norm”.

Since January 1, 2023, GreatFire has seen a surge of downloads of its censorship circumvention tool FreeBrowser in Turkmenistan. FreeBrowser has consistently been amongst the top ten free apps in the Turkmenistan Google Play Store. In 2023, FreeBrowser has been used by over 1.4 million unique users in Turkmenistan. A recent report placed the population of Turkmenistan at 2.8 million people (although government officials claim the population is much higher). This potentially means that every other person in Turkmenistan is using or has used FreeBrowser sometime this calendar year.

FreeBrowser’s popularity in Turkmenistan has been achieved with no promotional effort and largely by word of mouth. GreatFire focuses most of its efforts on China where the so-called great firewall is the most sophisticated censorship technology in the world. But our tools can also beat firewalls in other countries.

However, the rise of FreeBrowser in Turkmenistan came as a complete surprise. We believe that the growth of FreeBrowser is linked to efforts that the Turkmen authorities took in 2022 to limit the use of VPNs in the country. In the second half of 2022, civil rights organizations reported that “an increasing number of internet websites” were being blocked and that those using circumvention tools were being subjected to intimidation. 

The media environment in Turkmenistan is in many ways more restrictive than that of China. There is no media freedom in Turkmenistan, and all print and electronic media is state-controlled. There are few foreign journalists in the country and no independent voices. A 2013 law prohibits censorship yet all publications are controlled by the government and must receive authorization before going to press.

Like in China, there is no public list of censored websites but media websites are regularly blocked. These websites include social platforms, privacy-enhanced messaging services, and VPN websites. The Committee to Protect Journalists ranks Turkmenistan as the #3 most censored country in the world. China ranks #5.

We note that our peers in the internet freedom space have reported increased aggression from the Turkmen authorities. Citizens have shared their on-the-ground internet experience via the Localization Lab here, and Tor has shared detailed information about their recent experiences here.

FreeBrowser may soon pass a threshold of 500,000 monthly active users in Turkmenistan. That would mean that each month, 19% of the entire population of Turkmenistan would be using FreeBrowser to access an uncensored internet, circumvent internet restrictions, read alternative media, and avoid repressive surveillance.

It is difficult to assess FreeBrowser’s impact in Turkmenistan. Human Rights Watch has admitted that strict information control measures make it difficult for them to assess the human rights situation in-country. As a result, citizens in Turkmenistan are being robbed of their fundamental human rights and this likely severely impacts many at-risk groups in the country.

The narrative spun by state-controlled media in Turkmenistan paints a deceptive picture of reality, one that tools like FreeBrowser are crucial in challenging. As Turkmenistan welcomed its $5 billion "smart city," Arkadag, the government simultaneously throttled internet speeds, making VPNs unusable. This tactic curtailed any dissemination of unfavorable coverage of the event, leaving the citizens to rely solely on the state's glorified portrayal of the city.

Without FreeBrowser, citizens would be left with a single, state-controlled narrative, devoid of critical information. For instance, while the state media lauds Arkadag's smart homes with remotely controlled devices, it fails to address how these systems will function when internet speed is manipulated by censors. The state media's narrative is further skewed by the deliberate timing of Arkadag's inauguration, strategically chosen to strengthen the cult of personality around former President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.

In this environment of controlled information, FreeBrowser offers an uncensored view of the world to Turkmenistan's citizens, promoting free access to information and a more informed populace. It stands as a beacon of truth, challenging the state's narrative and fostering a sense of agency among citizens. In the face of state media's efforts to suppress the truth, tools like FreeBrowser are more crucial than ever.


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Fri, Mar 18, 2022

Well-intentioned decisions have just made it easier for Putin to control the Russian Internet

This article is in large part inspired by a recent article from Meduza (in Russian).

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Russian users have had problems accessing government websites and online banking clients. Browsers began to mark these sites as unsafe and drop the connection. The reason is the revocation of digital security certificates by foreign certificate authorities (either as a direct consequence of sanctions or as an independent, good will move); without them, browsers do not trust sites and “protect” their users from them.

However, these actions, caused - or at least triggered by - a desire to punish Russia for their gruesome actions in Ukraine, will have long-lasting consequences for Russian netizens.

Digital certificates are needed to confirm that the site the user wants to visit is not fraudulent. The certificates contain encryption keys to establish a secure connection between the site and the user. It is very easy to understand whether a page on the Internet is protected by a certificate. One need just look at the address bar of the browser. If the address begins with the https:// prefix, and there is a lock symbol next to the address, the page is protected. By clicking on this lock, you can see the status of the connection, the name of the Certification Authority (CA) that issued the certificate, and its validity period.

There are several dozen commercial and non-commercial organizations in the world that have digital root certificates, but 3/4 of all certificates are issued by only five of the largest companies. Four of them are registered in the USA and one is registered in Belgium.

Mon, Aug 03, 2020

Announcing the Release of GreatFire AppMaker

GreatFire (https://en.greatfire.org/), a China-focused censorship monitoring organization, is proud to announce that we have developed and released a new anti-censorship tool that will enable any blocked media outlet, blogger, human rights group, or civil society organization to evade censors and get their content onto the phones of millions of readers and supporters in China and other countries that censor the Internet.

GreatFire has built an Android mobile app creator, called “GreatFire AppMaker”, that can be used by organizations to unblock their content for users in China and other countries. Organizations can visit a website (https://appmaker.greatfire.org/) which will compile an app that is branded with the organization’s own logo and will feature their own, formerly blocked content. The app will also contain a special, censorship-circumventing web browser so that users can access the uncensored World Wide Web. The apps will use multiple strategies, including machine learning, to evade advanced censorship tactics employed by the Chinese authorities.  This project will work equally well in other countries that have China-like censorship restrictions. For both organizations and end users, the apps will be free, fast, and extremely easy to use.

This project was inspired by China-based GreatFire’s first-hand experience with our own FreeBrowser app (https://freebrowser.org/en) and desire to help small NGOs who may not have the in-house expertise to circumvent Chinese censorship. GreatFire’s anti-censorship tools have worked in China when others do not. FreeBrowser directs Chinese internet users to normally censored stories from the app’s start page (http://manyvoices.news/).

Fri, Jul 24, 2020

Apple, anticompetition, and censorship

On July 20, 2020, GreatFire wrote to all 13 members of the Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law of the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary, requesting a thorough examination into Apple’s practice of censorship of its App Store, and an investigation into how the company collaborates with the Chinese authorities to maintain its unique position as one of the few foreign tech companies operating profitably in the Chinese digital market.  

This letter was sent a week before Apple CEO TIm Cook will be called for questioning in front of the Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law. The CEOs of Amazon, Google and Facebook will also be questioned on July 27, as part of the Committee’s ongoing investigation into competition in the digital marketplace.

This hearing offers an opportunity to detail to the Subcommittee how Apple uses its closed operating ecosystem to not only abuse its market position but also to deprive certain users, most notably those in China, of their right to download and use apps related to privacy, secure communication, and censorship circumvention.

We hope that U.S. House representatives agree with our view that Apple should not be allowed to do elsewhere what would be considered as unacceptable in the U.S. Chinese citizens are not second class citizens. Private companies such as Apple compromise themselves and their self-proclaimed values of freedom and privacy when they collaborate with the Chinese government and its censors.

Mon, Jun 10, 2019

Apple Censoring Tibetan Information in China

Apple has a long history of censorship when it comes to information about Tibet. In 2009, it was revealed that several apps related to the Dalai Lama were not available in the China App Store. The developers of these apps were not notified that their apps were removed. When confronted with these instances of censorship, an Apple spokesperson simply said that the company “continues to comply with local laws”.

In December, 2017, at a conference in China, when asked about working with the Chinese authorities to censor the Apple App Store, Tim Cook proclaimed:

"Your choice is: do you participate, or do you stand on the sideline and yell at how things should be. And my own view very strongly is you show up and you participate, you get in the arena because nothing ever changes from the sideline."

In the ten years since Apple was first criticized for working with the Chinese authorities to silence already marginalized voices, what has changed? Apple continues to strictly follow the censorship orders of the Chinese authorities. When does Tim Cook expect that his company will help to bring about positive change in China?

Based on data generated from https://applecensorship.com, Apple has now censored 29 popular Tibetan mobile applications in the China App Store. Tibetan-themed apps dealing with news, religious study, tourism, and even games are being censored by Apple. A full list of the censored apps appear below.

Thu, Jun 06, 2019

Report Shines Spotlight on Apple’s Censorship Practices in China

The newest Ranking Digital Rights Corporate Accountability Index makes recommendations on what companies and governments need to do in order to improve the protection of internet users’ human rights around the world. Ranking Digital Rights (RDR) works to promote freedom of expression and privacy on the internet by creating global standards and incentives for companies to respect and protect users’ rights.

In their 2019 Accountability Index, RDR looks at the policies of 24 of the world’s most important internet companies in respect to freedom of expression and privacy and highlights the companies that have made improvements and those companies that need to do more. RDR notes that:

Insufficient transparency makes it easier for private parties, governments, and companies themselves to abuse their power over online speech and avoid accountability.

In particular, the report highlights how Apple has abused their power over online speech, and notes instances of this in China. According to the report, Apple has not disclosed data around the content that it removes from its App Store when faced with requests from the government authorities.

While [Apple] disclosed data about government requests to restrict accounts, it disclosed no data about content removal requests, such as requests to remove apps from its App Store. Apple revealed little about policies and practices affecting freedom of expression, scoring below all other U.S. companies in this category.

The report makes intelligent and sensible recommendations for governments. However, the recommendations also highlight how difficult it is to have these discussions with governments like China’s.

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