Cyberspace is becoming a key battleground in a political struggle in Turkey connected to allegations of high-level government corruption. The latest casualty is the popular US-based audio-sharing website SoundCloud.
Music lovers in Turkey recently trying to access the site found it blocked under a January 16 court order. A shroud of secrecy surrounds the reason for the ban. But the ruling follows numerous tweets by an unknown tweeter, Haramzadeler (sons of thieves), with links to recordings on SoundCloud of allegedly incriminating telephone conversations involving Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
In response to a EurasiaNet.org query, SoundCloud spokesperson Emma Young emailed that the company is “looking into why this happened and what can be done to resolve the situation. “
The SoundCloud ban is not a one-off development. Although official figures do not exist, multiple sites have been blocked since corruption allegations implicating some members of the prime minister’s inner circle first surfaced in December 2013.
Reasons for the bans have not been publically disclosed, but the shutdowns have further fueled political tension over the corruption scandal. “How many websites have been closed because they published news about the December 17 graft and bribe operation?” rhetorically asked Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party in his weekly address to his parliamentary deputies on January 28. “What is the justification for these measures to be taken?”
Since the government began purging thousands of police officers and prosecutors working on the case, the investigation has come to a virtual standstill. On January 29, two of the most senior prosecutors handling the official inquiries were reassigned.
In a nationwide survey by Metropol, released on January 27, 64 percent of 1,545 respondents said they believe the media is not freely reporting on the corruption probes.
Amendments that would introduce additional restrictions to Turkey’s already draconian Internet law could limit public knowledge of the scandal still further.
Under the proposed new legislation, the Ministry of Transportation, Maritime Affairs and Communication, which is responsible for Internet policy, can remove items from a site, or block the site within four hours of receipt of an official complaint or of the ministry noticing content they believe violates the law. Keyword searches, too, can be blocked.
Service providers also will have to save user history for two years and make it available to the government, if requested. To ensure their speedy compliance, all service providers will have to join a state-controlled union; expulsion from it will mean they will have to terminate operations.
The proposals would forbid proxy sites and tunnels already widely used in Turkey to circumvent existing bans on websites.
“The timing of these rushed amendments is certainly political,” and it is related to the corruption-probe, charged law professor Yaman Akdeniz, an expert on cyber-freedoms at Istanbul Bilgi University. “The government seems to be trying to control the potential leakage of sensitive documents, videos or audio online, so a swift mechanism for removal -- or, if removal is not possible, then blocking -- is introduced with these new amendments.”
No public discussion has occurred about the proposed amendments, he added. But they have already produced howls of protest, including from some of Turkey’s leading industrialists.
“The amendment[s] should be cleared of provisions that will negatively affect fundamental rights and freedoms as well as the growing Internet-related economy,” the Turkish Industrialists’ and Businessmen's Association demanded in a January 13 statement.
The prime minister has dismissed such concerns, accusing the business leaders of treason and warning that tax inspectors could visit them soon.
Transportation Minister Lütfi Elvan defends the proposed changes, arguing on January 14 that they will protect individual privacy. “This legal arrangement is by no means a regulation that brings censorship,” Elvan claimed. “It is one that helps [Turkey] to reach the standards of developed countries and makes the present law more functional.”
Civil-rights lawyer Selin Kaledelen, who represents the freedom-of- speech advocacy website Korsan [Pirate] Party, asserts steps are already well underway to circumvent the new regulations. Kaledelen said her group is working on creating an Internet network, called Meshnet, which runs via WiFi and would act “like a dark net.” It also is promoting use of VPN, which encrypts Internet use.
Kaledelen, in her late 20s, argues that age is working to the activists’ advantage. “These people in government are all over 40. They still don’t fully understand the net.”
But the advantage of youth could prove fleeting. Authorities are creating what is being dubbed in the Turkish media a “cyber army.” In September 2013, the ruling Justice and Development Party announced it had recruited 6,000 net-savvy people to work on social media and Twitter.
Communications consultant and technology magazine editor Kozan Demircan noted that word has circulated that the government has been “recruiting hackers for the last two years.” Other such unconfirmed reports claim that the Turkish Communication Board, the state body that administers the Internet in Turkey, is recruiting intelligence agents, he said.
“They are taking steps to transform the Internet into a pro-government Internet, like they did with the mainstream media,” Demircan charged. “They are going for profiling, they are going for monitoring, they are going for censorship.”
Dorian Jones is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.