By Andrew Gardner, Amnesty’s Turkey Researcher.
The Twitter shutdown started at about 11pm on Thursday night. My telephone started to ring: had I heard that Twitter was blocked? There was confusion about who could access Twitter, who couldn’t, and why. And would the government really take this step – such a brazen attack on freedom of expression – just a week before the local elections?
Yes, that’s just what they have done. Five days on, Twitter is still blocked in Turkey and there is no sign of when the ban might be lifted.
It wasn’t a complete surprise. Four hours before it was shut down, Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had threatened to “wipe out” Twitter at an election rally. And as he has said since, he personally gave the order. It’s a textbook example of how policy is made – and human rights infringed – in Turkey.
By 1am on Friday morning, a lot of people had worked out how to get around the ban by changing their computer and smartphone settings – effectively hiding their geographical location. Jargon like DNS (Domain Name System) and VPN (Virtual Private Network) – previously only found in tech geek vocabulary – became common currency in Turkey overnight.
Google’s popular public DNS was shared on social media and scrawled as graffiti on walls. The day after the ban came into force, Twitter traffic in Turkey was reported to be 30% higher than the previous day. Over the weekend the authorities moved to a different form of blocking that is harder to get around, but lots of people are still tweeting in Turkey.
Why would the government persist in this widely criticized and ultimately futile attempt to silence Twitter?
The answer lies somewhere between a manifest intolerance of dissent, and the alleged tapped telephone conversations substantiating corruption allegations against government officials. Twitter has been a major platform for both.
Ironically, the Prime Minister – himself an avid Twitter user – is incensed by its role as a megaphone for critical voices.
Despite this apparent own goal, the move only makes sense as part of a broader strategy to curb free expression on the internet. When the authorities amended the county’s internet law in February, they unleashed widespread powers to block internet content. It’s questionable whether the Twitter block is legal even under this law, as there was no court order to authorise the ban.
The Prime Minister has since said that Facebook and YouTube, both of which have offices in Turkey, represent a threat to national security, insinuating that they too could be blocked. The authorities now want Twitter to have a representative in Turkey. Someone who could be subjected to government pressure?
All this adds up to an ominous warning of what the future may hold. The mainstream media in Turkey is already cowed to the government. The question now is whether social media will go the same way.
Could the Prime Minister or one of his advisers just call up a social media company and order it to remove content? According to a now infamous conversation leaked recently, that’s just what the PM did with the Editor in Chief of Turkey’s HaberTurk news channel last June: requesting that live highlights from of an opposition party leader’s speech be removed from TV screens.
Social media companies, their users and anyone who values free expression should be alive to this danger and speak out against it, including on social media.