YouTube ban removed in Turkey after 67 days, but censorship threats persist

Following 67 days of censorship, YouTube was unblocked in Turkey on Tuesday following a ruling last week by the Constitutional Court that the ban violates freedom of expression. While Access welcomes the Court’s decision, the underlying legal frameworks allowing such censorship still exist. We hope that the international community continues to remain vigilant about further online restrictions as Turkey’s presidential elections in August and the IGF (Internet Governance Forum), which will take place in Istanbul this September, rapidly approach.

Timing matters

The Constitutional Court’s decision and the resulting lifting of the censorship – which comes after three separate appeals to overturn the ban (by YouTube itself, the president of the Union of Turkish Bar Associations and an independent scholar respectively) – echoes the Constitutional Court’s April ruling on the Twitter ban. Since the beginning of this year, Prime Minister Erdogan’s government has moved forward with a crackdown on social media, accompanied by its ongoing demonization following the tape scandal during which reportedly private phone conversations and voice recordings involving corruption, media coercion, and even a false flag operation in Syria were leaked through social media channels and YouTube. After Erdogan’s February 20 municipal elections campaign rally where he stated “We’ll eradicate Twitter. I don’t care what the international community says,” Turkey blocked access to Twitter, just about a month before local elections. The ruling by the Constitutional Court overruling the Twitter ban came in early April, to which Erdogan commented from an intensely nationalist perspective, stating that the ruling “denigrated national values” by “siding with an American company” and was “not respected by the government, but will be applied.” The blanket ban on Twitter was eventually removed, shortly after the election.

“An Orwellian nightmare” at the works

At the domestic level, various developments have occurred in Turkey that make its byzantine system of internet governance more complex, showing that the new internet-related laws harbor increasingly authoritarian ramifications that may continue to prompt censorship in the future. Firstly, two government-sponsored omnibus bills were passed and signed into law in early February, which amended the Internet Law of Turkey (Law No. 5651) to expand Turkey’s already extensive censorship authorities.

The amendments include very troubling mechanisms, described as an “Orwellian nightmare” by Yaman Akdeniz, a professor of law who also describes himself as a “cyber-rights activist.” According to Akdeniz, it is a “panic-led legislation,” coming right after various leaks and tapes collectively seen as a major scandal for the ruling AKP government. These problematic changes include the establishment of an internet service providers association – officially functioning since May 19 – which strictly requires each service provider to become a member in order to do business in Turkey. Through this organization (with its misleading trade association image), the Turkish government will facilitate the application of blocking orders. More specifically, using this centralized mechanism, the government can restrict access to a video or voice recording within hours. On top of this, the government-appointed President of the Telecommunications Directorate (TIB), is given expanded powers, including the ability to issue a blocking order for any website.

Looking forward

Despite the removal of the blocks on YouTube and Twitter, Turkey should stay on the international community’s radar. Worryingly, on Tuesday, EU Commissioner for Enlargement, Štefan Füle, in welcoming the lifting of the bans on these sites, referred to the block as “an anomaly. While the recent unblocking of YouTube and Twitter are certainly welcome, the underlying legal framework allowing such censorship to occur has not changed. Indeed, as Turkey heads towards Presidential elections in August, these kind of blocks may very well become the rule not the exception. We’ll be watching, and we hope the international community will be too and uses the opportunity of the IGF to push for rights-respecting change in the country’s internet policies.