What does Turkey have in common with Iran, North Korea, China and Cuba? As of last night, the NATO member and European Union candidate had joined those four other countries with dismal freedom of expression records as one of the few nations to have instituted a total ban on access to Twitter. Turkish Twitter users have been quick to circumvent the block, but the move marks yet another disturbing anti-democratic turn for the government of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The block on Twitter access started late yesterday, just a few weeks after the government passed a new internet law that gives it enhanced powers to shut websites down and only hours after Erdogan vowed at a campaign rally to "eradicate" Twitter, which has been playing a prominent role in recent weeks as the conduit for links to leaked phone calls and documents connecting the PM and other official to corrupt activity. The Hurriyet Daily News provides some interesting background on how the new internet law was used to put the Twitter block in place through executive order, rather than a court action:
Twitter, the social media platform with 12 million Turkish users, has been blocked by the Communication Technologies Institution (BTK), working under the Ministry of Transport, Maritime and Communication.
The BTK, which was given extraordinary powers with a recently passed Internet law, used its initiative late last night to block access to Twitter. The institution has released a statement, arguing that there were a number of court rulings that Twitter did not abide by.
“The aforementioned website, based abroad, ignored the rulings of the Turkish Republic’s courts. To prevent our citizens from receiving irreparable damage, there was no option left but to block access to Twitter in accordance with the court rulings,” the statement said. Access will be unblocked if Twitter removes “the illegal content,” the BTK warned.
The most striking court verdict used as the base of the BTK’s Twitter ban comes from the Anatolia Fifth Criminal Court of Peace. The court issued the ruling, numbered 2014/181, in response to a complaint filed by former Transport Minister Binalı Yıldırım and his son (document obtained by daily Hürriyet).
Yıldırım, who is also the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) current mayoral candidate in İzmir, had requested that the court block access to a Twitter account, @oyyokhırsıza (no votes for thievery), and a related blog, claiming “defamation.” @oyyokhırsıza was using strong language to refer to the allegations against Yıldırım and his son.
Another two of the court rulings listed as the source of the blocking on the BTK’s website are related to the individual complaints of two citizens.
International criticism of the ban was quick to come, with German, British and EU officials all expressing their dismay and the White House also saying it is "deeply" concerned by the Twitter ban, calling it "contrary to democratic governance." Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, described the block on Twitter as "a fundamental blow to freedom of expression in Turkey." But there was concern also expressed from within the Turkish government, with President Abdullah Gul (who, it must be noted, signed the controversial internet bill into law despite being urged to veto it) saying -- via Twitter, no less -- "The wholesale shuttering of social media platforms cannot be approved. I hope this practice will not last long."
From the perspective of many Turkish Twitter users, the "wholesale shuttering" lasted only about as long as it took to fiddle with their proxy settings or figure out some other method by which to post their tweets. As sociologist Zeynep Tufekci wrote:
By the end of it all, most Trending Topics worldwide, and of course in Turkey, were about the blocking of Twitter, and of course, opposing it. Let alone be deterred, the number of Tweets in Turkish and from Turkey were close to record-breaking levels.
People in Turkey had banned the ban.
Still, even if a large number of Turkish Twitter users were able to get around the block, the government's move is a deeply disturbing one. With an estimated 10-12 million Twitter users, Turkey has the world's eighth highest number of people using the service and the highest penetration rate as a percentage of all internet users. The complete blocking of what has become such a vital source of news and social exchange is another indication of how warped the Erdogan government's understanding of the freedom of expression has become and how much the interests of the PM have become conflated with the interests of the state. For the Twitter ban to come so soon after Erdogan promised it would happen is a chilling development, one that suggests that Turkey's already crumbling system of checks and balances is almost completely nonexistent at this point and that -- as I wrote in a briefing this week for the World Politics Review website -- the only state institution the PM is now willing to truly defend is himself, no matter what the cost.