Turkey’s plan to destroy social media

Will Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan use the coronavirus crisis as a pretext to finally defeat his nemesis, social media? 

A draft of Turkey’s economic aid package in response to the pandemic was made public early this month and eight articles buried deep in the bill outline a framework that free speech advocates like Human Rights Watch describe as an attempt to censor and control social media. 

Among other restrictions, the bill stipulates that all social media platforms with more than a million daily users - this would include 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 block users. 

The social media regulations were removed from the aid package before it was passed by Turkish parliament last week, but Yaman Akdeniz, faculty of law at Istanbul Bilgi University, feels confident they will soon be revived.  

“We will see another incarnation of this draft,” he told Ahval in a podcast, adding that the government had likely spent considerable time putting together the smartly structured regulations and would thus be reluctant to dismiss them. 

“It will come back, like a zombie spawning back to life. This is well thought out from the government’s point of view,” he said. “This is not going to go away.” 

Turkey already blocks nearly 300,000 websites, including those of Ahval News, and an additional 150,000 URLs. Turkey has in the past blocked Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, WhatsApp and other leading social media platforms, while Wikipedia was blocked for more than two years before that ban was reversed in January. 

This suppression has only increased during the pandemic. From March 15 to April 5, Turkish authorities investigated more than 3,500 social media accounts - about 160 per day - and detained 229 people for their posts, including more than 10 journalists, and two parliamentarians. 

Yet the Turkish government has continued to face a steady stream of criticism on Twitter and other social media platforms for its questionable coronavirus response. Some, like Akdeniz, do it openly on their personal accounts, while others use anonymous or parody accounts to stay safe from government persecution. 

Akdeniz said the proposed regulations sought to compel the world’s most popular platforms to come to Turkey and obey Erdoğan’s government. 

“This is not necessarily a ‘Welcome to Turkey, let’s have Turkish coffee’ kind of invitation,” he said. “It states that if you do not come to Turkey we are going to restrict your internet bandwidth up to 50 percent, and if you do not comply with our second request within 30 days we are going to restrict your internet bandwidth up to 95 percent. This basically means that these social media platforms will be almost unusable and inaccessible from Turkey.”

As per the bill, these platforms must also keep their Turkish user data in Turkey, and will incur sizeable fines if they fail to comply with Turkish government requests. Keep in mind, Turkey issued the most requests to Twitter to withhold content last year, more than 6,000, but just 5 percent of these were granted. For instance, Turkish requests to block the Twitter accounts of BirGün, Sözcü, and Ahval, were denied, even though those websites are blocked in Turkey. This regulation likely aims to boost the percentage of similar requests that are granted. 

For users, the bill would effectively end anonymity, which means nobody could use anonymous Twitter or YouTube accounts to criticise the government. 

“The Telecommunications Authority, BTK, will be asking these social media platforms to provide all the data for all the users at one go,” said Akdeniz. “I could say this would be the end of anonymous accounts in Turkey, or parody accounts. Turkish Twitter is vibrant with anonymous political commentators.”

Social media platforms would also be compelled to remove or block access to content according to decisions from the Turkish courts. Akdeniz said Turkish courts issue about 12,000 of these decisions every year, or about 33 per day, and platforms would need to respond within 72 hours or face fines of up to five million liras ($717,000). 

“They can challenge and appeal those decisions, but very rarely do Turkish judges accept these appeals,” said Akdeniz, who has appealed a handful of major Turkish court decisions on social media, including bans on Twitter, YouTube and Wikipedia. “While there’s a very swift and fast-track mechanism to block access to content and remove content, there’s no such mechanism for appealing against these decisions, which is unacceptable.” 

For social media firms, compliance would essentially hand control of their platforms to the Turkish government. The alternative is to do what PayPal did in 2016, and leave Turkey. Akdeniz sees it as a Catch-22: social media platforms are forced to either give up the lucrative Turkish market or become, in essence, a puppet of an authoritarian government. 

Despite this, as of Wednesday, none of the leading social media platforms had offered any response to Turkey’s proposed restrictions. 

“I would’ve expected an immediate response from at least Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube,” Akdeniz said, adding that all of these platforms will have considerable difficulty hiring a legal representative in Turkey. “That would become a very dangerous job...that person would potentially face prosecution.” 

That will not be happening anytime soon, as Turkish legislators removed from the economic aid package the articles related to increased social media regulation. If and when these regulations do return, they will be just one part of the government’s campaign to muzzle online expression. 

Turkish authorities have for years been taking away users’ main work-around of government bans. After Turkish users turned to virtual private networks (VPNs) to access blocked content during the 2013 Gezi protests, the government began blocking VPNs. Today a growing list of more than 25 VPNs, including leading services like ExpressVPN, PIA, Cyberghost, and NordVPN, are inaccessible from Turkey, according to Akdeniz.  

Turkey may also be employing new online surveillance tools. Selin Girit, a BBC correspondent in Turkey, recently said on Twitter that she had been locked out of her WhatsApp without sending any message, just after receiving a text, which may have been a new form of hack. And journalist and novelist Kaya Genç told Ahval this month that many of his friends had begun to fear the Turkish government was listening in on their private WhatsApp group chats. 

Experts say that without Facebook’s assistance it would be all but impossible for the Turkish government to interfere with WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption. 

“But they are quite happy, I think, that people are scared,” said Akdeniz. “That’s the climate of fear that this draft law created, because everybody in Turkey is quite scared to express themselves.”

After the coronavirus passes, Akdeniz expects Turkish citizens to find themselves in an even more authoritarian state.

“This will have a chilling effect,” he said. “There will be more self-censorship and people will not be willing to raise their concerns on social media.”