The pathology of expecting social network websites to wave the ‘democracy flag’

One of the most basic principles and characteristics of the public sphere must be its independence both from the state and market forces. So why should Turkish people feel betrayed by Facebook?

Güneş Tavmen
21 October 2013

Unprecedented civic political participation in Turkey has resulted in an inquisition into the role web 2.0 applications have played in these widespread uprisings. While Turkish mainstream media have fallen glaringly short in reporting on these developments, the role of social media in the social movements has become yet another case study. Fortunately, this time around, the main tendency is a modest claim of influence compared to the frenzy once created around them during the Arab Spring in 2011. Lately, Facebook has created another debate around its self-censor policies when it started to shut down the pages of Kurdish politicians and some branches of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) one by one in the last three months. This was right after the Gezi resistance and just before the upcoming elections.

The reason given by the company was a reiteration of their general policy on avoiding terrorist actions on Facebook. What they claimed was that these pages contained the images of PKK flags together with praise for the PKK. So Facebook legitimised this censorship action on the grounds that the PKK was included in the list of international terror groups, a general rule they apply in all such cases of terrorist groups. The said images were taken from a legal rally of a legal political party who is ironically in the process of negotiating Kurdish rights with the government. Needless to say, Facebook taking such an initiative without any court order infuriated the BDP who set about protesting against the website at an international level. Meanwhile FedBir Kurdish Federation UK has launched an online petition against Facebook’s censorship on its Kurdish pages via Change.org. Moreover in late September a commission of Turkish, Kurdish, and British academics and human rights activists living in the UK had a meeting with Facebook executives in London. In that meeting, to which the press was not invited, according to the news website firatnews.com, Facebook admitted that they might have made a ‘mistake’.

This is not the first time Facebook has shut down (directly or indirectly) political pages in Turkey. Another example was the company’s banning of the page of LGBT civil rights group from Eskisehir, MorEl (Purple Hand) including shutting down the personal pages of its activist members in January 2011. The reason given for this act of censorship by Facebook was its no-tolerance policy towards groups that practice “abuse of drugs, nudity, violence, threatening of a certain individual or a group, and terrorist actions”. Yet it remains unclear which if any of these offences LGBT civil rights group had actually committed.

In July 2013, an alternative, and voluntary citizen journalism initiative ‘Otekilerin Postasi (the Others’ Mail)’ was also blocked for its ‘pornographic’ content. Otekilerin Postasi started as an initiative by two activists aiming to draw attention to the plight of Kurdish citizens on hunger strike in jail in September 2012; another set of incidents mainstream Turkish media chose to ignore. However, this alternative journalism initiative’s operation later extended itself into a general alternative media channel that used Facebook as one of its main platforms. Whilst Otekilerin Postasi is not limited to reporting on Kurdish issues, their agenda revolves around them since these are severely neglected in the mainstream media. When they were accused of having pornographic content, they were writing actively about a misogynistic claim on the part of a spokesman on public TV, who had opined that women in the later stages of pregnancy should not go out on the streets in order not to disturb people - especially young girls - with the ‘distorted’ image they presented. So the group used the hashtag of ‘resistpregnant’ in reference to Gezi resistance throughout Turkey. Following some other incidents, most recently in mid-October, they had their Facebook page shut down once again, for the fourth time; this time Facebook did not even bother to give a reason…

This somewhat ‘whimsical’ interactive and participative information and communication dissemination has been eulogised as a ‘tool of emancipation’ in some quarters. However nowadays, after two decades, that can hardly be the final word on this social networking site. In addition to the question of whether the internet is genuinely interactive and participative for all, the fact that it is predominantly driven by corporate profit must give it a contentious status in the framework of democracy. Plus, interventions from the various nation-states in the form of regulations and legislations to control the online context for both political and commercial interests are increasing day in day out. Therefore, the dissemination of information, and the regulation of communication in the capitalist economy in relation to the concept of democracy remains a pressing debate for our contemporary societies.

In countries like Turkey, which do not have a brilliant record when it comes to freedom of speech, the challenge becomes even more urgent. Historically, Turkey has had many problems in terms of freedom of speech and press, which ranked 154th out of 179 countries in the Reporters Without Borders’ Report of World Freedom of Press Index 2013. In the online domain, given the speedy advancement of technology in contrast to the slow emergence of regulation, the legal framework to control internet content has pursued an interesting path in Turkey. Until 2001, for almost 10 years since the first penetration of internet into the country, there was no specific regulation on online content. However by 2011, Turkey had become the first country to introduce a government-controlled and -maintained content filtering system amongst the OSCE countries.

This drastic change in approach can be examined in a broader political context related to the traditional problems of restrictions in the freedom of expression and media in the country. However, in my opinion, another related factor was the highly accelerated penetration of the internet connection in the early 2000’s, in addition to the growing web 2.0 applications that enabled people to express themselves much more freely. As the percentage of internet penetration leapt from 5.2 in 2001 to 33 by 2011, suddenly there emerged commercial concerns as well as political complications. The internet, hardly regulated until that point in Turkey, now went through several restrictive legal measures driven by both corporate interests and political concerns.

There are two main laws that restrict the content of web pages in Turkey. The Law No. 5651, entitled “Regulation of Publications on the Internet and Suppression of Crimes Committed by means of Such Publication,” is concerned with website content relating to  child pornography or drug and gun sales and also more subjective issues like insulting Mustafa Kemal Ataturk or the propaganda of terrorist groups. The other one, Law No. 5846 “Intellectual Property Rights (IPR)”, which regulates IPR as its name suggests, although not specifically directed to internet content, nevertheless has a profound effect on content. Whilst the former law is regulating the content of the pages in terms of ‘catalogue crimes’, considered illegal under different laws, the latter aims to protect commercial profit generated through IPR. Besides these laws, The Presidency of Telecommunication, that banned a record number of websites in 2013 is another public institution authorised to censor pornographic websites without any court order.

In the scope of both laws, a great variety of websites have been banned in the last decade, most notoriously, Turkey’s ban on YouTube access for over three years. The main reason for this ban which made Turkish censorship famous, seems to have been a series of videos that were illegal under Law No. 5651 because they were listed for “insulting Turkishness” and “insulting Ataturk”. Although YouTube seems to have fulfilled the request from the public prosecutor to remove these videos, users replaced them shortly afterwards. In that incident, there are many inconsistencies but perhaps the most interesting one is that during the whole time YouTube was blocked, it remained the eighth most-accessed website[1] in Turkey as the information on how to avoid filters and blocking by changing the Internet Protocol numbers were promptly made available to even the most unskilled users. Since the Law related to the publishing of content, not having access to it, this was hardly illegal. This amusing inconsistency went so far that in November 2008, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan stated publicly that he could easily access the website and moreover, advised the public to do so as well, although the law demanding the banning of such websites had come into force during his administration.

But there is another aspect of the YouTube ban which is often overlooked -  the ‘tax issue’. During the period of the banning the access to the YouTube, Binali Yildirim, Turkish Minister of Transportation, Maritime Affairs and Communications, responsible for information and communication technologies policies in Turkey repeatedly raised the issue of Google paying no tax in Turkey. This was not illegal since it was covered by certain bilateral agreements as the sales operations came through Ireland, but when questions were raised about the YouTube banning, Yildirim began to make statements such as this, in June 2010, “ You (Google) do earn a lot of money from Turkey, have a branch office just for marketing and then will not pay any tax! Then you invite Turkish journalists to your headquarters to discuss internet freedom. That is not right, it is our duty to defend the rights of our citizens who pay their taxes.” or again in November 2012,“Google has searched everything but the location of the tax office”.  Such ministerial declarations raise a question mark over the banning of YouTube: was this the result of videos that ‘insulted Turkishness’ or part of Turkish negotiations over Google paying taxes?

Given these power moves, welcoming Facebook or similar applications as the return of a long-missed public sphere has clearly proven to be a misconception. Then again what is most surprising is not that they have failed to be the gatekeepers of democracy but that they were ever conceived as such. One of the most basic principles and characteristics of the public sphere must be its independence both from the state and market forces. And the most used internet websites today are now the biggest agglomerations of the world economy.

We cannot even trust the governments that we actually vote for not to place unacceptable constraints on internet content in an attempt to hinder our communication. So why should we trust profit-seeking companies? Especially when they so often confuse themselves with government agencies, in part of a rather selective process of abiding by government regulations only as and when they wish. In the recent incidents of page-blocking of Kurdish groups and politicians, Facebook has clearly proved that they consider themselves some kind of authority in identifying and judging who a terrorist is. Of course it should also be noted that nobody believes that Facebook per se is so very concerned with the web pages of individual Turkish MP’s, without certain ‘requests’ from political powers higher up. In that respect, following the Gezi protests, Minister Yildirim’s declarations regarding the ‘pleasing cooperation’ between Facebook and Turkish government have really not enhanced Facebook’s standing as an independent platform. The extent of cooperation, later explained in more detail, does not go so far as to include Facebook supplying unlimited user information to government agencies, but operates strictly in line with the Law 5651 - a law, however, that is highly flawed and open to interpretation. Yet, even under the condition that these Facebook pages were illegal according to the law, there should have been a court or a prosecutor order to shut them down, as would be the case if they were independent web pages.

So the puzzle remains. Is Facebook implementing the bans on all these pages because it is indeed afraid of being blocked by the Turkish government, in the same way that Youtube was, and this in the country ranked 3rd in its number of Facebook users? Are they especially concerned since they also do not pay tax in Turkey? Or are these secondary concerns? Perhaps the greatest puzzle, however, is that so many people still feel so appalled when corporates take these actions. If one day a country were to come up with a regulation that forced these social media websites to share everyone’s private data, it seems that Facebook would be happy enough to oblige, since they are like putty when it comes to these laws. And the recent NSA ‘scandal’ suggests that this point may already have been reached.

Therefore, isn’t it time to get real about the existing limits and the nature of social media today, and to search for an authentic way of being informed and communicating that might actually contribute to the freedom of speech? Or even more urgently, rather than battling with Facebook, political parties like BDP should put their energy into something more productive like getting rid of the laws that impede the freedom of speech in Turkey once and for all.


[1] Kelly, S., Cook, S., & Truong, M. (2012). Freedom on the Net 2012. Freedom House. Washington DC: Freedom House

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