The Twitter War in Turkey

Prasant Naidu
Prasant Naidu Founder, Lighthouse Insights

Posted on April 24th 2014

The Twitter War in Turkey

Recep_Tayyip_Erdogan_Twitter_ban

Internet censorship is a growing issue in emerging nations. Most of us are fortunate enough to use the internet and social networks to express our thoughts and can vouch for freedom of expression but there are countries who are at war, for years, for freedom of speech and information. According to a new report from Pew Research Center, data shows that people in emerging nations around the world want freedom on the Internet. Youth are especially opposed to censorship, reports Mashable.

According to the data collected by Pew while conducting 21,847 face-to-face interviews in 2013, 89% of participants from Venezuela lead the findings followed by Lebanon and Chile who advocated for Internet freedom. Turkey, especially under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has been under criticism for unlawfully blocking social media in the country as he considers the medium a menace to the society.

At present Twitter is at loggerheads in the country. Tensions between Turkey and Twitter are nothing new but the present set of developments indicate that the 140 character social network is giving up the fight. Even though Twitter has said openly that it will work with the laws of the land, it has been one network that is yet to bog down to political pressures.

To understand the present day condition, we will have to walk back to the past in 2007 when YouTube was first banned in the country.

It was during this year that Turkey’s parliament adopted a sweeping law that allowed a court to block any website where there was “sufficient suspicion” that a crime had occurred. The eight crimes listed include child pornography, gambling, prostitution, and “crimes against Ataturk”.

In June, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe said the law was being used to block access to more than 5,000 sites, making internet censorship in Turkey amongst the heaviest in the world.

2007 to 2010 – YouTube ban

Problems with social media for Turkey go back to 2007, when Türk Telekom blocked the site in compliance with decision 2007/384 issued by the Istanbul 1st Criminal Court of Peace (Sulh Ceza Mahkeme) on 6 March 2007. The court decision was based on videos insulting Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in an escalation of what the Turkish media referred to as a “virtual war” of insults between Greek, Armenian and Turkish YouTube members.

YouTube was sued for “insulting Turkishness”and access to the site was suspended pending the removal of the video. YouTube lawyers sent proof of the video’s removal to the Istanbul public prosecutor and access was restored on 9 March 2007.

With several videos deemed insulting being uploaded regularly, YouTube was finally completely blocked in Turkey in May 2008, with the blockade lasting more than two years.

The ban was lifted in 2010 as the offending videos were removed from YouTube. Interestingly enough, YouTube claimed that it had nothing to do with the removal of the offending videos. “We want to be clear that a third party, not YouTube, [has] apparently removed some of the videos that have caused the blocking of YouTube in Turkey using our automated copyright complaint process,” read a YouTube statement.

Although YouTube was officially banned in Turkey, the website was still accessible by modifying connection parameters to use alternative DNS servers, and it was the eighth most popular website in Turkey according to Alexa records.

In fact in December 2008 prime minister Erdoğan encouraged people to work around the YouTube block, its number of visitors doubled making it the fifth-most visited website, according to Alexa.com.

Surprisingly the same tech savvy prime minster Erdoğan now associates social media as a curse to the society.

2013 Turkey protests take on Twitter

Protests in Twitter have been going on for years and so has been censorship in Turkey. Twitter came into attention by mid 2013. With local media failing to adequately cover the ongoing anti-government protests in Turkey, Twitter became a vital tool for Turks to share what’s happening in Istanbul and around the country, reported Mashable.

Initially the protests started on 28 May 2013, to contest the urban development plan for Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park. The protests were sparked by outrage at the violent eviction of a sit-in at the park protesting the plan. This resulted a round of protests across Turkey over a wide range of concerns, at the core of which were issues of freedom of the press, of expression, assembly, and the government’s encroachment on Turkey’s secularism.

3.5 million of Turkey’s 80 million people were estimated to have taken an active part in almost 5,000 demonstrations across Turkey connected with the original Gezi Park protest. 11 people were killed and more than 8,000 were injured critically.

The Turkish media tried to downplay the protests but social media played a key role to the protests that were compared to the Occupy movement and the May 1968 events. New York University’s Social Media and Political Participation laboratory shared that 10 million tweets have been sent using the most popular hashtags in a matter of three days from June 1st – June 3rd 2013.

TurkeyProtest 2013

This range of protests also brought the authoritarianism of Erdoğan forward who has governed since 2002. Erdoğan lashed out at Twitter in an interview. Right now, of course, there is this curse called Twitter, all forms of lies are there,” said Erdogan, who himself was quite active on the network. This thing called social media is a curse on societies.”

2013 May and June months witness mass protests and police brutality. Heavy clashes between police and protesters took at various places in Istanbul. Finally President Abdullah Gül announced suspension of Gezi Park redevelopment plans and an investigation regarding police brutality was opened and some officers were dismissed.

By 2013 August, the scale and frequency of demonstrations started to die down.

2014 Feb – April: Twitter and YouTube banned

By the end of 2013, protests re-ignited after the Turkish ministers’ sons and businessmen were detained during the 2013 corruption scandal in Turkey. These protests started gaining force with the constant brutal suppression by the government and riot police officers.

Demonstrations in February also happened for a new bill which was passed by the Turkish parliament that would allow Turkey’s telecommunications authority to block websites without first seeking a court ruling. The law can force internet providers to store data on web users’ activities for two years and make it available to the authorities.

This move by Erdoğan’s government, which labelled him as Hitler in his own country, was a clear indication that the government wanted to stop information from being circulated on open networks like Twitter and Facebook, thereby mobilising the protests.

Protests finally took an ugly turn with the death of 15 year old Berkin Elvan, after lying in coma for 269 days. The boy who had walked to get bread at a local store in Istanbul was hit by a tear gas canister.

His family announced his death on Twitter, and Turks immediately began calling for protests shortly thereafter. Speaking to BBC News Hour, Elvan’s father said of his son’s death, “My son was a child who went out to buy bread and was killed by the state.”

Hundreds of thousands of protesters swarmed highways and squares in the northern city of Istanbul, following the boy’s coffin as it was carried through the streets.

Berkin Elvan Turkey protests

With elections due in March, 2014 Erdoğan was facing his greatest threat to power since taking office in 2003. He was fighting a corruption scandal prompted by leaked audio recordings ahead of scheduled elections.

While the PM asked Turks to take their complaints to the voting booths, he also threatened to ban some social media websites, saying, “We won’t allow the people to be devoured by YouTube, Facebook or others. Whatever steps need to be taken we will take them without wavering.”

March 20, 2014 Erdoğan’s office issued a statement saying that Turkish officials had “no option” other than to ban Twitter. The move followed after Erdoğan told a rally in Bursa, “We will eradicate Twitter. I don’t care what the international community says. Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic.”

Twitter, which had been under immense pressure from the Turkish government since mid 2013, added that it can’t confirm if there has been a formal ban, “that would have to come from the government.”

However, Twitter offered an SMS workaround in the country. It advised Turkish customers of Avea and Vodafone to text “START to 2444.” Turkcell customers can text “START to 2555.”

In no time the blocking of Twitter already backfired the government with people opposing it aggressively; the hashtag #TwitterisblockedinTurkey became a globally trending topic on Twitter. According to Guardian, Turkish users collectively tweeted 2.5 million times since the ban went into effect, potentially “setting new records for Twitter use in the country.”

Reports stated that it is an attempt from Erdoğan to curb the conversation on reported evidence of his involvement in a corruption scandal with key local elections on the horizon. While the government states that there are “hundreds of court rulings in Turkey” ordering Twitter to remove content, the San Francisco-based social media company has yet to abide by them. Meanwhile a Turkish court has ruled that the government’s blocking of access did not originate from a court ruling, but rather a direct executive order.

In fact the Turkish President Abdullah Gul stood against the prime minister’s actions, and took to Twitter to express his disapproval, saying that he hoped the ban would not last long. Turkey’s main opposition party had also said that they were seeking to end the ban.

Meantime government closed one of the most popular backdoor that Turks have been using to circumvent the blocking of Twitter. The government tightened the circle early on March 22 by blocking access to the Google public DNS service. After the government had blocked Twitter on the grounds of protection measure, many Turkish Twitter users had started typing 8.8.8.8 and 8.8.4.4, the DNS addresses belonging to Google, into their network settings, therefore bypassing the block.

With the government blocking the DNS options, VPN method was the only option left for Twitter to enter the country.

The government received a blow by March 26th 2014 when a Turkish court on Wednesday ordered the government to lift its Twitter ban.

Meanwhile with days left for the election, the video-sharing site YouTube was blocked by the government through all ISPs, and had posted a screenshot which simply read at the bottom: “Access has been blocked by Telecommunication Communication Presidency.”

The move to block YouTube happened after Google had declined requests from the Turkish government to remove a video that allegedly points to government corruption. It reportedly includes a recording of Erdogan, in which he tells his son to hide cash from investigators. The video became viral over the network.

The elections on 30th March, witnessed clashes, leaving 8 people dead. The protesters, according to Hürriyet Daily News, were supporters of the opposition Republican People’s Party, who claim there was widespread fraud by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the election.

The elections saw Erdgoan’s AK Party score victories in many municipal elections across the country. Suspicions of fraud and vote manipulation, however, arose when a series of power blackouts darkened election offices in many cities, including the capital Ankara, just as votes were being counted.

2014 April onwards

Election results were out and Erdogan, secured his eighth big win in 14 years when his AK party swept to over 45% of the vote in the local elections.

But his party was spoiled after the Constitutional Court verdict forced Turkish authorities to lift the ban on Twitter. The court had told the country’s telecommunication authorities the two-week-old ban must be lifted as it was a breach of freedom of expression.

However, the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan criticised the ruling of the Constitutional Court that lifted his government’s March 20 ban on Twitter.

“We are of course bound by the Constitutional Court verdict, but I don’t have to respect it. I don’t respect this ruling.” said Erdogan, a day after Twitter went live again in Turkey.

With Twitter opened up for public use, YouTube lodged an official complaint in the Turkish Constitutional Court regarding the website’s ban throughout the country. A lower court issued the first ruling ordering the ban to be lifted on April 4th, but later on the same day a higher court reversed the order after an appeal by the Turkish prosecutor.

The network remains blocked in the country since the Turkish telecom regulator, the Information and Communications Technologies Authority (BTK) has decided not to lift the ban until “criminal content” is removed from YouTube.

Twitter giving up before the Erdoğan government

In the last few weeks, the Turkish government has asked Twitter and Facebook to pay taxes to its treasury — despite the fact that neither have an office in Turkey. Subsequently, it is putting pressure on Twitter to open up an office in Turkey.

Turkey’s Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek told reporters a week ago that all social media companies that do business in Turkey should pay taxes to the Turkish Government and have an office in the country. Earlier to these statements, Erdoğan accused Twitter of being a “tax evader.”

Twitter, on the other hand, has decided not open an office in Turkey but an unnamed Turkish official told Reuters that Twitter has agreed to shut down some accounts and will establish a more formal mechanism to handle Turkish court rulings involving Twitter accounts.

A Twitter delegation recently visited Turkey to meet with government officials to explain how Twitter responds to content removal requests and judicial orders and to re-establish “ties and open relations” with the government.

However, local news organization Anadolu Agency reported that Twitter had agreed to act “more quickly and in a more sensitive manner” to Turkish courts rulings, and that the company had implemented five court decisions before the meetings “as a sign of good will.”

Colin Crowell, Twitter’s vice president and head of global public policy said Twitter is ready to deploy local content bans, and Nu Wexler, a Twitter spokesman, confirmed to Mashable that the company has blocked some accounts, but only within Turkey. Twitter has posted information about the removed content on Chilling Effects, a transparency website.

The other latest development is that the Turkish government will now pixelate or blur all “malicious” content on Twitter, according to the local Dogan News Agency. Twitter has also agreed to implement court orders “quickly” and to “act meticulously” to shut down fake accounts, said Turkey’s Communications Minister Lutfi Elvan.

The crackdown is already on: two prominent Twitter accounts were seemingly blocked this weekend from the services.

Erdogan has already given hints that he might run for president in August; if that happens he could rewrite the constitution to fulfill his long-held dream of being a more powerful executive president.

As of now Erdogan remains Turkey’s dominant political figure and Twitter, which is recovering from a slow growth, takes a tough road to support free speech in a country which has more than 10 million users.

Image credit: StraitsTimes, Mashable

Prasant Naidu

Prasant Naidu

Founder, Lighthouse Insights

Founder and Blogger at http://lighthouseinsights.in, Indian social and digital media news.

See Full Profile >