The Turkish Presidency of Telecommunications and Communication (TIB) has put Turkish Internet legislation enacted a few weeks ago to immediate use. As we discussed in a previous blog post, TIB now enjoys enhanced powers to issue blocking orders, even without judicial review. Under this new legal framework, TIB has ordered both Twitter and YouTube blocked, despite national and international criticism. As multiple parties noted, these blocking orders undermine freedom of expression in Turkey.
The Turkish government’s discontent with social networking and users’ platforms has quite a long history now. In 2013, Twitter and YouTube played a key role in the Gezi Park protest, while State television opted for less inflammatory programming, as if nothing was happening in the streets of Istanbul. Recently, users posted on both Twitter and YouTube embarrassing recordings related to a corruption scandal involving members of the Ankara government.
TIB reacted to the governmental discontent by ordering Turkish Internet Service Providers to block access to Twitter first and Google a few days later. Both platforms had been ordered to remove allegations of corruptions involving senior officials of Erdogan’s party and governmental members. Supposedly, both intermediaries did not act expeditiously enough to meet the government’s request, especially with the municipal election day coming on March 30, 2014.
The ban on Twitter came after a rather strong warning from the government. The Press Adviser of the Prime Ministry made the following statement: “It is the case that the authorities of Twitter have remained insensitive towards the implementation of court orders obtained by citizens of the Republic of Turkey ordering the removal of some links. Indeed, throughout this process, [TIB] have taken the necessary initiatives in line with these court orders, yet the authorities at Twitter have been indifferent to these demands. It is stated that if such indifference persists and if court orders are disregarded, there will be no other option than to prevent access to Twitter in order to eliminate the grievance of our citizens.”
In the case of Twitter, TIB cited three court rulings and one prosecutorial decision as a basis for the blocking order issued to Turkish ISPs to block the microblogging platform by refusing to provide domain name services that translate the words twitter.com into the service’s IP address, as is necessary for URLs to work. In fact, Turkish scholars and activists have noted that the courts orders cited by TIB did not require complete website access blocking. It was TIB’s arbitrary decision to implement a measure that silenced Twitter over the entire Turkish territory.
The ban on YouTube, however, is the first instance in which TIB has used its enhanced powers under the new law to block a website without any court order. TIB blocked YouTube unilaterally by saying: “after technical analysis and legal consideration based on the Law Nr. 5651, ADMINISTRATION MEASURE has been taken for this website (Youtube.com) according to Decision Nr. 490.05.01.2014.-48125 dated 27/03/2014 of Telekomünikasyon İletişim Başkanlığı.” The overbroad powers handed over to TIB by the recent Internet law reform, as feared by many Internet rights activists, proved immediately to be a powerful censorship tool.
In the aftermath of the Twitter’s ban, the OCSE media freedom representative expressed the international community’s concerns about media freedom and freedom of expression in Turkey: “[T]hese measures are devastating to free expression and freedom of the media and they curbs citizens' right to freely express themselves." OCSE called for an immediate lifting of Twitter ban. The US and EU protested the decision in similar terms.
Domestically, both the Turkish President, Abdullah Gul, and the vice premier, Bulent Arinc, openly opposed the ban. Furthermore, an administrative court in Ankara actually ordered TIB to lift the ban on Twitter. The Court in Ankara has received an appeal filled by the Turkish Bar Association, Turkish Journalists Association and the Deputy President of the Nationalist Movement Party, Oktay Vural, directly against the decision of TIB. TIB has 30 days to appeal or implement the court ruling. At the moment, it is unclear if the government intends to lift the ban, as the decision of the administrative court should immediately go into effect. However, the adversarial relationship of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister, with social platforms, and the recent additional blocking of YouTube seems to suggest that it will not. Meanwhile, incapable of reaching an agreement with the government, Twitter has decided to challenge the access ban by filing lawsuits in several Turkish courts.
Additionally, Yaman Akdeniz and Kerem Altiparmak, Turkish human rights scholars and activists, have petitioned the European Court of Human Rights for an urgent interim measure related to the blocking of Twitter in Turkey. A copy of the petition can be found here. A few days earlier the same applicants lodged a similar petition before the Turkish Supreme Court. These scholars requested this urgent interim measure to protect the applicants’ “right to vote and be elected” and of freedom of expression in connection with the municipal elections that were held on Sunday, March 30, 2014. In the ECHR petition, Akdeniz and Altiparmak provided a reconstruction of the present Turkish political scenario. They noted that the recent amendments to the Turkish Internet Law No. 5651 and TIB’s orders blocking access to Twitter, and recently YouTube, have an effect on free elections in Turkey. These measures serve the goal of silencing discussion about the elections and allegations of corruption of some political players.
YouTube’s situation is still in flux. Rumors are that Google, the video site’s parent company, is in discussions with government officials to explore whether they will lift the ban. So far, Google confirmed that there is no technical issue on its side and they “have received several credible reports and confirmed with [their] own research that Google’s Domain Name System (DNS) service has been intercepted by most Turkish ISPs (Internet Service Providers).” This makes it more difficult for users to circumvent this ban, as the Google’s free public DNS service has initially been used to that effect. As Open DSN Chief Executive David Ulevitch commented, “this hijacking of our traffic represents an escalation of censorship and data manipulation by the Turkish government that we have not ever seen previously anywhere outside of China."
The Ankara government is using a heavy-handed approach to force platforms to censor Turkish citizens. As in the case of China, the sole option for platforms to operate and get back online may be to censor valid speech. The recent amendments to the Internet legislation are conducive to that goal. They turn decisions on website blocking into a wholly administrative matter, which is heavily influenced by governmental directives Although we may be witnessing an authoritarian turn in Turkish internal political affairs, a general lesson can be learned from the Turkish case. Administrative enforcement of intermediary liability through governmentally controlled agencies, such as TIB, makes easier for governments tightly supervise the content that flows on the Internet.
In the case of Turkey, users’ platforms that played a role in facilitating discussion on sensitive political matters were silenced just before elections. Even if the ban will be later lifted, the damage to the electoral and democratic process has already irremediably occurred. The Turkish governmental party has achieved its goal. Closing the stable door after the horse has bolted provides little help. The only positive side of this story is that free citizens may have learned how to circumvent government blocking. As Avniye Tansug, a Turkish Internet blogger and activist, explained, “blocking social media helped Turkish users to rapidly learn VPNs and other techniques.” Next time, we hope that the Turkish people can master tools to avoid such self-serving censorship.
The author wishes to thank Avniye Tansug for the background information included in this blog post. Ms. Tansug is a Turkish Internet activist and blogger and she can be reached at avniye at tansug dot com.