More than 400,000 websites banned in Turkey – report

Turkey had banned access to a total of 408,494 websites as of the end of last year, including 61,049 in 2019 alone, according to the "Bans on the Web 2019" report published by the Freedom of Expression Association (İFÖD).

Turkey’s law No.5651, passed in 2007 to regulate online communications and internet broadcasting, has been used to ban access to 130,000 web addresses, 7,000 Twitter accounts, 40,000 individual tweets, 10,000 YouTube videos, and 6,200 Facebook posts as of the end of 2019, the report found.

At least 5,599 news articles were banned in 2019, and news networks removed 3,528 of them to avoid a wider ban on their services, according to İFÖD.

Hürriyet newspaper removed 336 articles from its website, while Milliyet removed 187 and news site T24 removed 171.

Out of news websites more critical of the government, OdaTV removed 126 articles, showing 98 percent compliance, while the website Sol removed 100 percent of its 69 banned articles. Evrensel followed with 46 articles removed.

Meanwhile, Diken, Bianet and Sendika.org refused to remove any articles. A portal for members of Turkey’s workers’ unions Sendika.org can currently be accessed via the address http://www.sendika63.org as its domain has been banned 63 times to date.

Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Wednesday that the government would press ahead with planned legislation to bring social media platforms under even tighter control, after he said his family was insulted online.

A proposed bill stipulates that social media giants like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and others must appoint a legal representative in Turkey to whom courts can turn to make requests to remove content or provide the identity of the users, effectively ending online anonymity.

Turkey banned access to the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia in April 2017 over some entries that it maintained promoted terrorism and smeared the country’s name. The ban was lifted when the Constitutional Court ruled in December last year that it had violated İFÖD founders Yaman Akdeniz and Kerem Altıparmak’s freedom of expression.

“Important statements that the Law No.5651 was used in a broad sense that would lead to arbitrary practices were also included in the AYM ruling,” the report said.

Some 16,797 bans were issued by various civil and penal courts, according to the İFÖD report, while Turkey’s Information and Communication Technologies Authority, operating under the Transport and Infrastructure Ministry, issued 42,145 bans in 2019. A relatively small number of bans, 1,334 in total, were issued by the Health Ministry over public health concerns.

The Jockey Club of Turkey also had three websites banned, over unlawful horse betting.

Video streaming giant YouTube was among the platforms that Turkey banned for extended periods over the years.

YouTube was first banned in 2007, when a Greek user uploaded a video implying that Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was gay. Three days after it re-opened in Oct. 2010, it was banned again until a compromising video of then-main opposition leader Deniz Baykal was removed from the platform. In 2014, a leak from then-foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s office led to another short ban.

Twitter rose to full prominence in Turkey after the anti-government Gezi protests of 2013, when thousands of protesters used to platform to coordinate and communicate, and many Turks had to follow news of the protests from the site as Turkish media failed to offer nuanced coverage.

In March 2014, the phone recordings allegedly between Turkey’s intelligence chief Hakan Fidan and Davutoğlu that had led to YouTube being shut down led to the banning of Twitter as well, after the recordings were shared widely on the platform.

Twitter was later re-opened but temporarily banned again in April 2015, when a Turkish prosecutor was murdered.

Turkey has since abandoned a full-on ban approach to Twitter, and requests that the social media giant itself regulate access to certain accounts and tweets from IP addresses within Turkey.

According to Twitter’s transparency reports, in the first half of 2019 Turkey made 350 account information requests for a total of 596 accounts, providing no information to the company on the reason for the requests.

In the same timeframe, Turkey sent Twitter a total of 5,685 content removal requests and 388 additional court orders. The country reported 8,993 accounts, while Twitter agreed to withhold access to 264.

Before international social media giants gained a foothold in Turkey, the country had its own phenomenon – Ekşi Sözlük, the “Sour Dictionary,” was established in 1999 with an original concept inspired by the science fiction classic, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and similar to the U.S.-based Urban Dictionary.

The website was first banned in 2006, over content that described how to consume marijuana. Colourful Islamist cult leader Adnan Oktar regularly filed complaints against the website to remove content.

In 2011, Turkey’s telecommunications authority at the time, the TİB, included Ekşi Sözlük in a list of websites to be banned for criminal content. TİB’s director later said that had been a mistake.

The same year, Ekşi Sözlük saw an exodus of users when it came to light that the website was not informing its users when it shared user data with authorities to remain compliant with Turkish law. It has not seen any major bans since, but the website itself uses strict moderation and frequently removes content upon complaints, without waiting for court orders.

A report by BBC Turkish said that in 2010 Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate had been given the authority to ban websites, restricted to the purpose of removing wrongful translations of the Quran from the Internet.

File hosting services like Google Drive, OneDrive and GitHub saw short-term bans in 2016, BBC Turkish said, when leaked e-mails allegedly belonging to Turkey’s then-Energy Minister Berat Albayrak, who currently serves as the Finance Minister and is Erdoğan’s son-in-law, were uploaded to them.

Online music service Last.fm and social network MySpace were banned in 2009 over copyright claims by a music producers’ association. The same year saw a blanket ban over pornographic content online, enforced over banning certain keywords which ended up banning websites and online magazines of LGBT associations for allegedly going against Turkish morality.

In 2011, more than 50,000 people organised a protest march against an Internet filtering system the government proposed at the time.

Virtual Private Networks, or VPNs, remain popular in Turkey to navigate the frequently-changing landscape of banned websites. During 2013, when the Gezi protests garnered international attention and support, VPN provider TunnelBear offered free accounts to 100,000 users in Turkey while Hotspot Shield removed data restrictions from its free plans. Tunnel Bear repeated a similar offer after the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016.

Although he did not so much as spell it out, then-Prime Minister Erdoğan in 2008 hinted at using a similar service.

When one reminded Erdoğan of the YouTube ban as he spoke about videos where Muslim women were being mistreated, Erdoğan said, “I can access YouTube, you could do it too.”

In Nov. 2016, Turkey ordered internet service providers to ban VPN services and other tools like Tor used for anonymity online. Users were still reporting an inability to connect to VPNs in 2019.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.