Escalation in Erdogan’s war on online freedom of expression


Yesterday morning, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan took another step in his ongoing war against the open internet, blocking Twitter. Earlier in the day, Erdogan told supporters at a campaign rally, “We now have a court order. We’ll eradicate Twitter. I don’t care what the international community says. Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic.”

At midnight that evening, roughly 10 million Turkish Twitter users witnessed this ‘power,’ in action. Local media reported that Turkish users trying to access Twitter instead found a website listing the four court rulings given as justification for the shutdown, courtesy of a DNS redirect by local ISPs. The court orders, and the ban, were also available on an official government website.

Erdogan’s office explained the reason for the expansive blocking in a statement, saying that Twitter failed to follow Turkish court orders instructing to remove certain links from their service. “If Twitter officials insist on not implementing court orders and rules of law … there will be no other option but to prevent access to Twitter to help satisfy our citizens’ grievances.”

The blocking of Twitter comes less than a month after the Parliament passed a harsh new internet censorship law, despite universal condemnation from the international human rights community.

That law, and yesterday’s redirect, have occurred against a backdrop of a flurry corruption allegations, both financial and personal, against Erdogan and others in the ruling AK Party.

The internet and Turkish social media have played a critical role in the publication of several voice recordings and documents supporting these allegations, including a voice recording of Erdogan warning his son to remove suspected cash bribes from safehouses ahead of reported police raids. While Erdogan claimed that the recording is a fake, the allegations come at a sensitive time for the AK party, just ahead of local elections at the end of March.

Unpopular and ineffective

Unfortunately, Turkish internet users are accustomed to government shutdowns of popular internet services, and have the necessary skills to bypass censorship. Within hours of the blockage settling into place, activists had plastered posters and spraypainted messages on buildings around Istanbul offering instructions for using alternate DNS to access Twitter and circumvent the blockages.

Despite the ban, Turkish Twitter users sent more than half a million tweets during the first ten hours of the ban. This included Turkish President Abdullah Gul — the country’s second highest-ranking AK Party member — who defied the ban to tweet his objection, stating “one cannot approve of the complete closure of social media platforms.”  Many in Turkey are using the hashtag #TwitterisblockedinTurkey to voice their anger and frustration.

In a perhaps unwitting acknowledgement of the ridiculous nature of the ban, Erdogan himself tweeted a pre-recorded video message to his supporters in the early morning hours after the ban had taken effect.

Twitter itself informed Turkish users that local phone carriers continue to provide access to Twitter via short SMS, tweeting ”Turkish users: you can send Tweets using SMS. Avea and Vodafone text START to 2444. Turkcell text START to 2555.”

International reaction

Erdogan’s blanket blocking of Twitter drew international condemnation. European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes described the ban as “groundless, pointless, cowardly” on her Twitter account.  U.S. State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that the U.S. remains “very concerned by any suggestion that social media sites could be shut down,” adding that, “an independent and unfettered media is an essential element of democratic, open societies, and crucial to ensuring official transparency and accountability.”

Turkey is expanding its role on the global stage when it comes to internet issues. It is one of the nine nations represented as part of the High-Level Stakeholder Committee for next month’s NetMundial meeting in Brazil, and has been actively involved in digital rights issues at the U.N. Human Rights Council. This fall, it will host the annual Internet Governance Forum (IGF), a high-level gathering of internet policy experts, human rights advocates, and civil society groups.

With its current record, Turkey can expect the IGF meeting to echo another global internet summit, held nearly ten years ago: the Second Phase of the World Summit on the Information Society, held in Tunis during the era of Ben Ali’s ironclad censorship.  It is impossible to credibly discuss the future of the internet in a country in which the internet is not free.Like in Tunisia at the time, Turkey may expect protests alongside the IGF’s discussions and roundtables.

If Turkey wants to be a global leader on internet policy, it must start by protecting a free and open internet at home.