Freedom of the press in Turkey is being rapidly eroded. In 2016, the country slipped to 151st place, out of 180, on the Reporters Without Borders “World Press Freedom Index”—a significant downgrade. At the same time, the internet is also increasingly coming under the scrutiny of Turkish authorities.
In recent years, Turkish officials have repeatedly blocked online services. Social networks such as Facebook and Twitter have been shut down for several days or weeks, especially in connection to protests against plans to redesign Istanbul’s Gezi Park in 2013. In response, activists spray-painted the names of alternative Domain Name Servers on the sides of buildings in order to evade the censors.
The censorship in Turkey is based on the jurisdiction of local courts. That means that it is still not as pervasive and systematic as, for example, in China; so far, it usually remains in place for just a few days. In recent years, however, the number of blocked websites has increased significantly. After the coup attempt in the summer 2016, the repression within Turkish society has intensified. The URLs of several Western media sites have been blocked for years, and in the summer, courts specifically ordered websites to be censored that reported money laundering allegations against Erdoğan’s son Bilal.
The president himself uses social media
Social media has come under constant attack. Yet, ironically, it was President Erdoğan himself who appealed to citizens through social media during the 2016 coup attempt, posting an interview he taped with state television on Facebook. Turkish internet providers were initially ordered to block all social media in the country, but were then instructed at the “urgent command” of the government to lift the blockade in order to allow Erdoğan’s supporters to mobilize on the streets.
In the days following the coup attempt, numerous websites run by journalistic organizations allegedly critical of the regime were blocked for days by government order. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) issued a strong indictment of this policy. According to Christian Mihr, RSF’s director in Germany, “Reporting that is critical of the government or sympathetic to the Gülen organization alone cannot serve as evidence of support for the coup. In the aftermath of the coup attempt, the Turkish government is still bound to act in accordance with the constitution, which guarantees freedom of opinion and of the press.”
The Redhack controversy
Another wave of censorship struck in October. An activist group called Redhack released around 17 gigabytes of data, including around 60,000 emails attributed to President Erdoğan’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak. He has headed Turkey’s Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources since 2015, and has been accused of corruption and favouritism.
Because these leaks were not merely released over classic FTP servers, but shared on the programmer platform Github and via cloud services like Google Drive and Dropbox, the blocks ordered by Turkish telecommunications officials were far more comprehensive than on previous occasions. Businesses that relied on these services were also at risk of being affected by state censorship. Google Docs, however, proved more difficult to block than the other services, meaning access was only temporarily cut off.
The Turkish government’s repressive measures are not always of a digital kind—seven young men were arrested and accused of belonging to Redhack. One of them, Taylan Kulaçoğlu, reported that he was being beaten and threatened with rape during the 12 days he was held in police custody.
Negative consequences for the economy deemed an acceptable price to pay
Turkey is part of a larger trend in which states are increasingly willing to accept potentially negative economic consequences when deciding to impose policies of internet censorship. Previously, even in countries with more draconian censorship than Turkey, the censors spared business-related use of online services. In China, recent years have seen business versions of several popular services often functioning significantly better than the alternatives available to private customers. Google Apps for Work has encountered fewer problems than Gmail, where the majority of users are private customers. Foreign businesses regard internet censorship as one of major drawbacks of doing business in China. However, the government in Beijing regards this as acceptable collateral damage in its quest for total information control. For employees of foreign firms in China, problems encountered sharing information or files with colleagues abroad often lead to major productivity losses. It will be interesting to see how international businesses react to the changes underway in Turkey.
Turkey seems to be emulating China in other respects as well: in November, internet providers were ordered for the first time to block VPN connections. These networks divert user’s internet traffic to a proxy IP address, usually located abroad, in order to evade censors. With the use of techniques such as “Deep Packet Inspection” (DPI), encrypted VPN traffic can be recognized in the flow of online data and separated from other internet traffic. Among the services affected by this block were popular alternatives such as Siphon, Hotspot Shield and VyprVPN. An attempt to block the anonymising network Tor was only party successful, as its developers had anticipated attacks by censors in the programming stage.
Other countries have also failed to block Tor
A few years ago, the Russian authorities publicly put the task of blocking Tor to tender. This was apparently no easy task: the successful bidder, a research institute, is currently trying to withdraw from their contract with the government. Even if a government were able to block Tor traffic, users would still in theory be able to gain access by using so-called bridges. Bridges disguise themselves as other services when a connection is being established, thus evading recognition.
Nevertheless, the Turkish government is not restricting itself to technical means in efforts to control online content. In September, the authorities asked Twitter to block the account of Turkish journalist Mahir Zeynalov. Such blocking requests have been repeatedly submitted against Twitter-verified accounts. Faced with a wave of protest from NGOs worldwide, Twitter ultimately declined to comply with the request. Accounts belonging to alleged member of Redhack were also at least temporarily blocked.
Official requests such as these are a growing problem for major online services. In order to be subject to local jurisdiction, a web service need not even have a physical presence in the country in question; often it suffices that they sell advertisement space or deploy a user interface translated into the local language. If they do not act in accordance with the government, they are threatened with fines, imprisonment, or the total blocking of their service. In the past, Twitter has countered criticism by citing these concerns, arguing that it is better to accept a degree of censorship then risk allowing the service to be shut down completely.
In Turkey, at the end of 2016, internet freedom is in serious danger. All signs point in the same direction: more authoritarian interventions, more controls, and more human rights violations. How will the international community react? Will businesses and investors abandon Turkey? Will Western governments finally issue clear criticisms of Erdoğan? In the EU Parliament, calls for serious consequences regarding Turkey’s membership bid are growing louder.
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