Twitter and YouTube Are Back, But Turkey Won the Censorship Battle
Turkey's social media bans show that tech companies aren't willing to fight anymore.
Image: Nico Kaiser/Flickr
On Monday, Turkey decided to use the internet censorship nuclear option: blocking entire websites to remove some content the government didn't want its citizens to see.
In this case, it was pictures and videos of Mehmet Selim Kiraz, the Istanbul prosecutor who was held hostage at gunpoint and later killed during a police raid last week. An Istanbul court ordered the block of 166 URLs that hosted footage of the incident, such as tweets (even if they only included the picture because of Twitter's article preview feature), YouTube videos, and several blogs and sites.
Last year, Twitter remained blocked for two weeks due to a similar censorship attempt, while YouTube remained inaccessible for more than two months. The blocks were lifted when the country's highest court ruled that they violated Turks' free speech rights.
Facebook, which also was briefly blocked this year, complied almost immediately. Turkey eventually threatened to block even Google, and gave the company four hours to comply with its demands. Sure enough, Google reportedly complied with the Turkish government and was spared the block.
But it might have been a pyrrhic win for the internet giants. Osman Coskunoglu, a former member of the Turkish parliament, told Motherboard that by caving to the Turkish government, internet companies will lose the faith of Turkish netizens.
"This will have serious repercussions against those companies, by the Turkish people."
"This will have serious repercussions against those companies, by the Turkish people," Coskunoglu said. "Right now there is an uproar which will result in boycotting those internet companies readily submitting to the Turkish government."
Score one for the Turkish government in this internet censorship deja vu showdown.
"This is something we've been through a million times," Eva Galperin, the global policy analyst at the digital rights organization Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Motherboard. "At this point I could write a blog post on Turkish internet censorship using mad libs."
Jokes aside, therein lies the problem with Turkey, which is one of the worst censors on the internet. The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has successfully convinced American tech companies that they have no choice when it comes to censorship: you either remove the content, no questions asked, or you get the whole service blocked.
When it comes to censorship in Turkey, you either remove the content, no questions asked, or you get the whole service blocked.
There's no denying that that's an "unnecessary and disproportionate restriction on expression," as Peter Micek, the senior policy counsel at Access, a digital rights organization, told me.
"Blocking an entire social media platform for 'illegal content' is like closing down the whole highway because of the criminal drivers," Deniz Ergurel, a tech reporter at the English-language Turkish newspaper Today Zaman, told me. "This is nonsense. It's like Don Quixote fighting against windmills."
Problem is, even the windmills are crumbling here.
In 2012, Twitter announced it would withhold content inside certain countries while leaving it available for users everywhere else. At the time, Twitter claimed it was the "free speech wing of the free speech party," as the company's general manager in the UK one famously said, and even in that announcement, Twitter proclaimed that "the tweets must continue to flow."
But now, even Twitter obediently complies with Turkey's demands because the company knows it will be blocked otherwise.
"I would really like to see the companies show a little bit more spine."
"I would really like to see the companies show a little bit more spine," Galperin told me. "I'm not surprised but I'm tremendously disappointed."
The bans on Monday are a painful reminder that, as internet activists like to say both for surveillance as well as censorship systems, "if you build it, they will come." In other words, if you create a way to remove illegal content, repressive governments will exploit and abuse it.
In Turkey, unfortunately, we're at the point where no one is surprised or shocked by this.
"My reaction was nothing because I'm just used to it," Serhat Koç, an IT lawyer who specializes in freedom of speech issues in Turkey, told Motherboard.
Koç explained that Turkey's new internet laws decree that where a simple block of a URL is not possible, internet service providers (ISPs) should just block entire domains. Since Twitter, Facebook, and many others use HTTPS encryption, censors can't block individual pages or tweets, so they resort to blocking the whole site if the companies don't take down the allegedly infringing content first.
When Turkey blocks entire websites, the decision seems to backfire as solidary hashtags and social media campaigns trend all over the world.
In the end, these blocks actually don't stop much anymore. Turkish netizens had to go through a crash course in internet censorship last year, and many learned all about virtual private networks (VPNs), Tor, and getting around DNS censorship—and even graffiti provided assistance.
"There will always be some people that will download the content and upload it again," Koç said. "It's so absurd to fight against this [by] banning websites."
But that's not the point.
For Coskunoglu, the former parliament member, this was about testing the waters, an exercise.
"How fast and effective can the government silence the social networks, should the need arise?"
"How fast and effective can the government silence the social networks, should the need arise during the forthcoming election campaign and during the election day (June 7)?" he told Motherboard in an email.
Now the Turkish government knows. And tech companies know that the government is not bluffing.
In other words, "the point is to symbolically protest that this information is out there," Galperin said. "If you can silence enough of the criticism then you've made a dent in it."
On Monday, Turkey made a statement, and American tech companies, even though they promised to appeal the court order, decided not to respond to it.
Yes, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are unblocked—minus the allegedly illegal content—in Turkey today. But at what cost?