Turkey’s nightmarish adventures in censorship and surveillance on the internet

As the mayoral elections are around the corner, authoritarian surveillance and the censorship of political content is increasing on a frighteningly exponential scale.

Güneş Tavmen
7 February 2014

In the year 2011, Bulent Arinc, the Vice-Prime Minister declared that the then President of Turkish Industry and Business Association (TUSIAD), Umit Boyner, was a porn enthusiast. This was his considered reply to Mrs Boyner’s criticisms of the internet filtering mechanism installed by the AKP government.

Despite many civic controversies, the government has defended its filtering system by claiming that it is designed to protect children from pornographic and violent content. So according to the government, whoever opposes that must be a porn enthusiast by default. However amongst all the ngo’s that have raised such criticism, it was only Mrs Boyner who came in for such lowlife humiliations. It has always set me wondering about how much of this was directly due to the fact that Umit Boyner, as leaders go, is a very strong character and a beautiful woman. In any case, Mrs Boyner’s opposition to the content filtering system as it is controlled by governmental institutions then became only one of many smear campaigns which she has had to contend.

In the last 10 years, the government’s interventions in internet regulation have always been highly problematic in Turkey. Censorship and shutting down random websites have been a daily activity. In my article in September 2013, I wrote about Facebook shutting down the pages of Kurdish politicians, citizen journalism and LGBT groups. I suggested that it was a consequence of the heavy censorship in the country and Facebook just chose to be allies with the government without any resistance to keeping these pages open.

Turkey’s shaky reputation in internet censorship has been visible in every international report on free speech, web indexes, and press freedom. Lately in November 2013, the Web Index Report prepared by the World Wide Web Foundation ranked Turkey as 58th out of 81 countries in terms of indicators based on universal access, freedom and openness, relevant content, and empowerment. In the same report, Turkey appears to champion censoring politically sensitive content together with Russia, China and Saudi Arabia.

Yet, this bleak picture was in place before the recent attack on the internet. Now, a new Bill has been passed on Wednesday night, a draft Law prepared hastily and of course without any deliberation with NGO’s, legal authorities or the internet companies.

Last June, when social media channels were heavily used in communication during the Gezi resistance, rumour had it that the government was preparing for a far stronger censorship of the internet. Prime Minister Erdogan, calling Twitter a ‘menace’, gave the clearest signal of another attempt to make things tighter under his authoritarian rule.

On top of that, following the corruption scandal revealed at the end of December 2013, every day there has been another leak of hacked phone conversations on the internet. The battle between the government and the Gulenists is very much about leaking each others’ phone conversations with businessmen or press members.

Turkey, as a country in which Youtube was banned for around three years, did not wait for long to shut down Soundcloud, where the alleged recordings of many phone conversations of Prime Minister Erdogan were accessible. Consequently it was just a matter of time before a tighter internet regulation would facilitate this more impromptu form of censorship.

As I have already written here; Law no. 5651, entitled “Regulation of Publications on the Internet and Suppression of Crimes Committed by means of Such Publication,” is concerned with the contents of the websites carrying child pornography or drug and gun sales and also more subjective issues like insulting Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, or the propaganda of terrorist groups. Due to that Law, which is very vague and arbitrary when it comes to definition, many websites got shut down either directly by the Telecommunication Directorate (TIB) or by the court and prosecutor orders.

According to the European Union’s report on Turkey’s Progress in Access to the Union, 32 thousand websites are estimated to have been censored for various reasons. In addition to that, in 2012, the European Court of Human Rights found Turkey guilty in terms of impeding the exercise of free speech on the internet, due to the very same Law 5651. That decision was made as a result of a trial in which Turkey was accused of shutting down Google Sites because of a blog entry that criticised Kemal Ataturk in 2009. Ironically, the entire website has still been blocked for five years, due to that entry.

In spite of all these issues, at the moment, what we are about to face is a considerable worsening of an already dire situation. The articles that extended the content of Law 5651 were buried in a bundle of other articles that changed the contents of a range of totally irrelevant laws. In other words the 10 articles were amongst 130 articles that dealt with other legislations. Not surprisingly this has ensured the total absence of any form of public consultation or monitoring.

As a result of the government’s desire for the instantaneous extinction of anything that is slightly inconvenient for them, the new Law will, in brief, enable the following retrogressive steps, among many other problematic issues;

-       The President of Telecommunication Directorate (TIB) is entitled to remove whichever website he wishes.

-       TIB is entitled to block access to websites within four hours without a court order.

-       Anyone with a claim that a website intrudes into their personal life can demand a website’s ban through a petition submitted to TIB without any court order.

-       Websites can be shut down by either blocking IP addresses or URL’s. Therefore unlike before, only the contentious pages can be shut down instead of the entire website as was the case in the Youtube ban. However that also means, changing DNS settings will not work in accessing the content.

Above are the extensions of the content of 5651 in terms of simplifying the process of blocking the websites.

What is relatively new and even more ominous is the obvious enhancement of surveillance throughout the internet that accompanies this. So by this new Law, both web hosting companies and service providers are obliged to keep records of all the internet activities of all users for about two years.

In order to control and enforce this, all the service providers are also obliged to be the member of a union to be established for this purpose. Whenever needed, hosting and service provider companies are obliged to track every internet activity of each user. Perhaps as a Turkish citizen, over the last decade I have become used to having web pages blocked. We all know how to avoid it by playing with DNS settings etc. But having all our web browsing history recorded and the records stored for two years is a very different matter.

Erdogan is determined to avoid anything that threatens his authority. Whether it is  revelation of corruption within his ruling government or even the activities of the parliamentary members of opposition parties. For instance even the personal web page of Umut Oran, the Member of Parliament who is from the main opposition party, CHP, has been blocked by TIB. Although later on TIB made a statement saying this was done through an unintentional mistake, when his website was censored, Oran had just published a set of documents questioning the dodgy sales of a media outlet in which Erdogan is alleged to have played the primary role.

As the mayoral elections are around the corner, authoritarian surveillance and the censorship of political content is increasing on a frighteningly exponential scale. The irony is that this bill is cynically legitimated in terms of ‘protection of privacy’ that enables the authorities to close down a website easily in case the page content is violating someone’s personal life.

How exactly that type of motivation is meant to relate to the enabling of unprecedented levels of surveillance is not explained. We await the opinion of President Abdullah Gul who has the authority to veto this bill, which is so technically inconsistent and blatantly controlling. In the very unlikely case that Gul decides to exercise his right to return the legislation for a rethink, I don’t think anybody will dare call him a ‘porn enthusiast’.



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