EFF has been tracking the Turkish government’s crackdown on tech platforms and its continuing efforts to force them to comply with draconian rules on content control and access to users’ data. As of now, the Turkish government has now managed to coerce Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok into appointing a legal representative to comply with the legislation via threats to their bottom line: prohibiting Turkish taxpayers from placing ads and making payments to them if they fail to appoint a legal representative. According to local news, Google has appointed a legal representative through a subsidiary in Turkey.
Out of the major foreign social media platforms used in Turkey, only Twitter has not appointed a local representative and subject itself to Turkish jurisdiction over its content and users’ policies. Coincidentally, Twitter has been drawn into a series of moderation decisions that push the company into direct conflict with Turkish politicians. On February 2nd, Twitter decided that three tweets by the Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu violated its rules about hateful conduct and abusive behavior policy. Access to these tweets was restricted rather than removed as Twitter considered them still in the public interest. Similarly, Twitter decided to remove and delete a tweet by the AKP coalition MHP leader Devlet Bahçel, where he tweeted that student protestors were “terrorists” and "poisonous snakes" “whose heads needed to be crushed”, as the tweet violated Twitter’s violent threats policy.
Yaman Akdeniz, a founder of the Turkish Freedom of Expression Association, told EFF
“This is the first time Twitter deployed its policy on Turkish politicians while the company is yet to decide whether to have a legal representative in Turkey as required by Internet Social Media Law since October 2020.”
As in many other countries, politicians in Turkey are now angry at Twitter both for failing to sufficiently censor criticism of Turkish policies, and for sanctioning senior domestic political figures for their violations of the platform’s terms of service.
By attempting to avoid both forms of political pressure by declining to elect a local representative, Twitter is already paying a price. The Turkish regulator BTK has already imposed the first set of sanctions by forbidding Turkish taxpayers from paying for ads on Twitter. In principle, BTK can go further later this spring. It will be permitted to apply for sanctions against Twitter starting in April 2021, including ordering ISPs to throttle the speed of Turkish users’ connections to Twitter, at first by 50% and subsequently by up to 90%. Throttling can make sites practically inaccessible within Turkey, fortifying Turkey’s censorship machine and silencing speech--a disproportionate measure that profoundly limits users’ ability to access online content within Turkey.
The Turkish Constitutional Court has overturned previous complete bans on Wikipedia in 2019 and Twitter and YouTube back in 2014. Even though the recent legislation “only” foresees throttling sites’ access speeds by 50% or 90%, this sanction aims to make sites unusable in practice and should be viewed by the Court the same way as an outright ban. Research on website usability has already found that huge numbers of users will lose patience with only slightly slower sites than they expect; Delays of just “1 second” are enough to interrupt a person’s conscious thought process; making users wait five or ten times as long would be catastrophic.
But if the Turkish authorities think that throttling away major platforms that refuse to comply with its orders, they may have another problem. The new Internet Social Media law covers any social network provider that exceeds a “daily access” of one million. While the law is unclear as to what that figure means in practice, it wasn’t intended to cover smaller alternatives -- like Clubhouse, the new invitation-only audio-chat social networking, iOS-only app. Inevitably, with Twitter throttled and other services suspected of being required to comply with Turkish government demands, that’s exactly where political conversations have shifted.
During the recent crackdown, Clubhouse has hosted Turkish groups every night until after midnight, where students, academics, journalists, and sometimes politicians join the conversations. For now, Turkish speech enforcement is falling back to other forms of intimidation. At least four students were recently taken into custody. Although the government said the arrests related to the students’ use of other social media platforms, the students believe that their Clubhouse activity was the only thing that distinguished them from thousands of others.
Clubhouse, as with many other fledglings, general-purpose social media networks, has not accounted for its use as a platform by endangered voices. It has a loosely-enforced real names policy -- one of the reasons why the students were able to be targeted by law enforcement. And as the Stanford Internet Observatory discovered, its design potentially allowed government actors or other network spies to collect private data on its users, en masse.
Ultimately, while it’s the major tech companies who face legal sanctions and service interruptions under Turkey’s Social Media Law, it’s ordinary Turkish citizens who are really paying the price: whether it’s slower Internet services, navigated cowed social platforms, or, physical arrest for simply speaking out online on platforms that cannot yet adequately protect them from their own government.