Is the internet helping democracy or autocracy in Turkey?
After the global euphoria about the internet's potentials for empowering individuals and supporting democracy, more realistic arguments have been put forward against this optimism. 1 Indeed, we have been observing an ongoing fight between the autocratic government in Turkey and the Turkish people over using the internet for the last 10 years. It started with Law No. 5651 which was passed in 2007. With subsequent amendments, this law is heavily criticised by EU's Venice Commission. Over time, as Turkish people get more proficient in changing DNS or using VPN services or Tor to access websites and thereby defeat censorship, government started to implement other policies not only restricting the access to social media and freedom of expression over the internet but also to violate privacy. In the meantime, many are convicted for their postings on social networks. The government’s clampdown on the internet increased intensely after President Erdoğan declared national State of Emergency in the wake of the 15 July 2016 coup attempt. Currently, the fight over the internet is escalating sharply.
The purpose of this open editorial is to narrate the ongoing and recently escalating fight between the government having an ambition to bring the internet under its control and those users who want freedom of expression on the internet. As such, it offers a case study for the debate between those who claim that the internet is a powerful lever for democracy and those who claim that it provides an even more powerful lever for autocratic governments and national leaders.
The history of the fight over the internet in Turkey goes back at least ten years. However, it intensified since the big civil protests that erupted in May 2013.
Tug of war between Erdoğan and social media
2 June 2013: During the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, then Prime Minister Erdoğan at a TV interview announced: "There is now a scourge called Twitter". The so called ‘Occupy Gezi’ protests were ostensibly against the planned urban development of a park, but turned into a nationwide rebellion against the Erdoğan’s autocratic ruling and shifting away from secularism. In this HaberTürk TV interview, he added that “This thing called social media is currently the worst menace to society”. 2
Why this fury against Twitter and social media? There are at least three reasons: (1) Occupy Gezi protesters were using Foursquare together with Twitter in order to quickly get organised for their next action. 3 (2) In Turkey, the education level appears to be positively correlated with social media use, while negatively correlated with the support for Erdoğan and his ruling party. 4 As such, it can be assumed that the majority on social networks were opposing Erdoğan. (3) A majority of mainstream media is under the ruling party’s control, thereby those who don’t qualify as "true believers" of Erdoğan use social media for news and analysis. Thus, Twitter is a hostile environment, according to Erdoğan. Anything or anybody against him ought to be evil.
30 October 2013: "Good things are happening on Twitter" Erdoğan said in a rally of his AKP party. 5
Why this change of mind? Because his party had recruited a 6,000 strong social media team. 6 Moreover, estimated 18,000 bots – fake Twitter accounts – were spreading pro AKP messages. 7 The AKP government didn’t stop there. On 22 February 2014 it proposed - and the AKP majority in the Grand National Assembly of Turkey dutifully passed - several amendments 8 to the infamous Law No. 5651. These amendments, in addition to allowing censorship, gave further powers to the government’s direct grip on the internet in general, and on social media in particular. Thus, what used to be evil was about to be tamed and converted.
20 March 2014: "Twitter, mwitter! 9” cries Erdoğan at a rally ahead of 30 March local elections, “We’ll eradicate all these. I don’t care what the international community says!” 10 Few hours later, Twitter was shut down in Turkey. Three days later he threatened to ban Facebook and YouTube, as well. 11 Indeed, one week later YouTube was blocked. 12
Now, what caused yet another reversal?! Few weeks before Erdoğan’s outcry, audio recordings had emerged online purportedly revealing corruption among some of his cabinet ministers. Neither AKP’s troll army nor recent amendments to Law No. 5651 – which, however, were partially overturned by the Constitutional Court – giving the government immense authority to control social media, have been effective to censor it. Just before local elections, this was too much for Erdoğan. He took the clampdown on the internet in his own hands, openly giving direct orders for banning social media.
8 February 2015: One year after stating that "I have nothing to do with Twitter" and announcing that social media is like a “knife in the hand of the murderer”, Erdoğan, the now President of the Turkish Republic – elected in August 2014 – sends out his first tweet.
How come?! Erdoğan’s relentless fight against social media continued during 2014 along two parallel lines, until he felt like he should finally appear on social media for good.
First one is with the involvement of the judiciary, the telecommunications regulatory agency (BTK) and the telecommunication companies, over which he has established a strong control. 13 For instance, the chain of events during the Spring of 2014 is quite telling. On 26 March, the Constitutional Court of Turkey ordered an end to the two week ban of Twitter, calling the block a violation of free speech and individual rights. Erdoğan responded immediately: "We complied with the ruling but I do not respect it." (Later, he will be appointing three new judges to the Constitutional Court after getting elected as the President of the Turkish Republic in August 2014). The next day, he ordered the blocking of YouTube. On 4 April a lower court in Ankara decided to remove the ban on YouTube, citing violations of human rights. Shortly after, it reversed its position and the ban remained. On 9 April 2014, a higher court overturned that ban, saying it infringed on free speech. Later, like the first court, it changed its mind and suggested a narrower ban on the 15 offending videos, and not the entire site. However, the government-controlled telecommunications regulatory agency (BTK) insisted that the content be removed from YouTube worldwide, not only in Turkey. Thus, despite the court ruling to lift the ban on YouTube, telecommunication companies – supposedly privatised however controlled by the government – continued blocking the site. 14
Thereafter, the BTK and telecommunications companies have appeared to be working together to restrict access to the internet or to ban a website. BTK, using its authority - which had been increased by the 2013 amendments to Law No. 5651 - can ban a website or request the telecom companies and ISPs to conform, under accusations of throttling the internet or for other restrictive measures.
Erdoğan’s second line of offense against the internet and social media starts after he was elected as the President of the Turkish Republic in August 2014. He began targeting the users opposing him and intimidated them by the threat of prosecution in court. In reaction to a question from a member of the Turkish parliament in March 2016, the Minister of Justice revealed that during the first 18 months of Erdoğan’s presidency, the ministry had allowed 1,845 cases to proceed on charges of insulting him. 15 This is roughly 100 court cases per month! Many, if not a majority of the cases for alleged insults were occurring on social media. Even a 13-year-old boy was apprehended on charges for "insulting" Erdoğan on Facebook, after his family’s house was raided by anti-terror teams. 16
Fight over the internet and social media escalates
Erdoğan’s strong grip on the state mechanisms, including regulatory agencies and telecommunications companies, and his intimidation strategy toward the people opposing him have gotten much more forceful after the 15 July 2016 military coup attempt allegedly staged by Erdoğan’s former ally Fetullah Gülen. Erdoğan declared the State of Emergency, based on which extensive arrests, dismissals from public organisations as well as universities and private companies took place, and a number of executive orders (KHK) were issued by the government. 17
The Executive Order KHK 671 18 issued on 17 August 2016, further increases the powers of the BTK. Now, in cases of exigent circumstances, the Prime Ministry shall determine the measures to be taken and notify them to the BTK for their implementation. The decision which is to be notified to the operators, access providers, data centres, and content and hosting providers by the BTK shall be implemented within two hours.
Based on this authority, internet restrictions are frequently used to suppress all media coverage whenever there is a political incident or a terrorist act. For instance, when a number of elected politicians were taken into custody at the beginning of November 2016, access to Twitter, YouTube and Facebook was restricted, along with popular messaging apps like WhatsApp, through bandwidth throttling at the ISP level.
However, over the last three years, many internet users in Turkey have developed proficiency in circumventing the government’s censorship using VPN services and the Tor website. Realising that their restrictions on the internet were not being very effective, in November 2016 the BTK ordered internet service providers to block VPN and Tor. 19
The year 2017 started very intensely. First came KHK No. 680, on 6 January, which was a new blow to personal data protection and privacy. Article 27 of this executive order, authorises law enforcement officers to conduct surveillance on data and communication traffic over the internet. Moreover, the internet service providers, hosting services and content providers have to deliver personal profiles of those individuals specified by the police, without any court order. This can open a number of new possibilities for privacy violations. For instance, for several years the government has been putting pressure on hospitals to have access to their patients’ profile and health data. So far, it appears that hospitals have been resisting against this demand. Now, if law enforcement officers were to knock on the door of the hospitals, it would be difficult to refuse complying with their demand.
Then, around mid January, the BTK, based on its increased authority via KHK 671, announced that each and every legal entity, whether a corporation or an individual person, is required to protect its digital devices from any malware, including zombie viruses, otherwise the agency will fine the legal entity. 20 The agency’s decision is ironic for at least two reasons. First, providing a national cyber security umbrella and supervising operators for using proper firewalls to protect customers is the BTK’s responsibility. Second, one of the founding purposes of the agency is to protect internet and phone customers.
The only meaningful explanation of this absurd decision of the regulatory agency is indicated to me by a well informed person in the telecom sector. The person said that after the 15 July 2016 coup attempt, thousands of public servants in this sector were dismissed, for allegedly being in favour of the coup. Many of those were professionally competent. Now the agency does not have enough qualified personnel left and it cannot find new ones who are both professionally qualified and supporters of the ruling party.
Indeed, prevailing incompetence shows itself in indiscriminate and ludicrous blocking decisions of the BTK. For instance, the day I completed writing this piece, I realised that I couldn’t access an article on disrupting effects of digital technologies in India,21 which I needed to inform my current research. The website was blocked by the BTK without a court order.
The government’s ambitions over the internet is not restricted to administrative and legal actions toward censorship or surveillance. Recently, the Minister of Transportation and Communication announced that its Ministry is planning to start a project for developing a ‘Made in Turkey’ search engine. 22 In February 2014, a few days after Erdoğan’s "Twitter, mwitter!" outcry, the Minister of Transportation and Communication – then a different person – had stated that “if necessary we quit www and start ttt!” 23
Only a few days ago, the State Supervisory Board, under the President’s Office, announced that for national security reasons, a ‘Made in Turkey’ version of WhatsApp should be developed.
According to the Network Readiness Index – which measures how well a country’s economy is using information and communication technologies – published annually by the World Economic Forum, among 143 countries, Turkey ranks 48. According to the Information and Communication Technologies Development Index – measuring a country’s information society level – published annually by the International Telecommunications Union of the UN, among 167 countries, Turkey ranks 69.
With this national ICT competency level, and while doing very poorly in every international education quality rankings, what could be the ruling party’s reason to carry an ambition of developing a national version of a search engine or a communication app or social media?
And the winner is…
There is an ongoing global debate on whether the internet provides better leverage for autocratic regimes or for democracy proponents. 24 Because of the distributed structure of the internet, it is very difficult and expensive to exercise central, top-down control over it. However, on the one hand, an autocratic government with legal and administrative instruments and mechanisms as well as financial means at hand can be a formidable power over the internet, as we have been observing in China and recently in Turkey. Moreover, such a government or a national leader can use the internet for spreading fake news and post-truth in order to twist the public perception. On the other hand, for informed individuals and rights activists, if they are well organised, the internet provides almost endless ammunition to fight back.
In Turkey, after the Occupy Gezi protests, and despite mounting pressure by the government, several positive developments have taken place. 25 These include, but are not limited to, citizen journalism networks, voluntary efforts to improve digital literacy, tutorials developed for cyber security, as well as on how to circumvent censorship and how to protect privacy. The bottleneck, however, is the lack of sufficient funds.
Currently, equipped with enormous powers under the State of Emergency declared after the coup attempt on 15 July 2016, the government has the upper hand in Turkey. President Erdoğan even enjoys Twitter, having sent over 4,000 tweets so far and with almost 10 million followers. But it is too early to call the winner. In my opinion, if the global solidarity among advocacy groups and rights activists can be achieved, then the picture will change.
1. Evgeny Morozov, The Net Delusion, Allen-Lane, 2011.
4. This was admitted by one of Erdoğan’s cabinet minister (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mfTxE4w322U) and was verified by a polling company’s research (http://www.konda.com.tr/tr/raporlar/KONDA_30Mart2014_YerelSecimAnalizi.pdf)
8. On amendments: http://www.dunya.com/gundem/torba-yasa-tasarisiyla-5651-sayili-yasada-neler-degisiyor-haberi-234509 (in Turkish) and http://www.loc.gov/law/foreign-news/article/turkey-law-on-internet-publications-amended/ (in English). After Turkey’s Constitutional Court’s decisions: http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/anayasa-mahkemesinin-internet-yasasi-karari-ne-anlama-geliyor-40024634. Venice Commission of EU analysis: http://www.venice.coe.int/webforms/documents/default.aspx?pdffile=CDL-AD(2016)011-e
9. Rough translation: “Twitter, schmitter!" http://uk.reuters.com/article/turkey-twitter-idUKL6N0MH5KQ20140320
13. "The Struggle for Turkey's Internet," A Freedom House Special Report, 2014 https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/The%20Struggle%20for%20Turkey's%20Internet.pdf
25. Erkan Saka (2017): Tracking digital emergences in the Aftermath of Gezi Park Protests, Research and Policy on Turkey, DOI: 10.1080/23760818.2016.1272268. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/23760818.2016.1272268