Following his pledge to “wipe out” Twitter last week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ordered ISPs to block the site, which they did by tweaking DNS settings and redirecting traffic from the page to a government blockpage.
The move was futile; Turkish Internet users have been dealing with censorship for many years and were immediately able to circumvent the ban. Within hours, Turkey’s prolific Twitter users had created hashtags like #TurkeyblockedTwitter, which subsequently landed on the trending topics list. Despite the block, more than an estimated half million tweets were posted within ten hours.
By Saturday, authorities had tightened the ban, blocking Google DNS and the IP addresses assigned to Twitter.com. In doing so, they made it more difficult to circumvent the ban; whereas before, Twitter users could simply change their DNS settings, they now must use a virtual private network (VPN), Twitter’s SMS service, a web proxy, or Tor.
Just as Twitter has seen a surge in the number of Turkish users, Tor use has markedly increased in Turkey. According to Tor’s internal metrics, connections from Turkey via Tor have nearly doubled in the past few days. EFF recommends that Turkish users who would like to circumvent government censorship do so by downloading and using the Tor Browser Bundle. Tor is an especially censorship-resistant technology, and will continue to circumvent censorship even if Turkey blocks other websites, DNS servers, VPNs, or proxies. While Iran and China are both engaged in an elaborate cat-and-mouse game with Tor developers—finding new ways to identify and block Tor traffic even as Tor developers find new ways to get around them—Turkey is unlikely at this point to engage in such behavior.
What does it mean?
A number of publications have suggested that the ban has “backfired,” or called it an example of the Streisand effect. Neither camp is entirely correct: To have backfired, the ban would have had to result in increased opposition (as it has elsewhere) to the censorship, something we haven’t quite seen (yet). And to represent the Streisand effect, the ban would’ve needed to have the effect of making the recent corruption allegations more visible; but as Henry Farrell pointed out in the Washington Post:
Most Turks who were potentially interested in Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recorded phone calls knew about them already. The tapped conversations have been the topic of widespread gossip and speculation in Turkey for weeks. This information would not have languished in obscurity if the Twitter ban hadn’t happened.
To the contrary, analyst Zeynep Zileli Rabanea suggested that those who liked Erdoğan’s policies already “will only like him more after what they consider to be a courageous stand up against the West and Turkey's critics.”
Indeed, Erdoğan’s move is not simply in response to the corruption leaks. In an interview with Al Jazeera English, AKP member Burhan Kuzu stated that the ban was a response to Twitter’s refusal to “implement the principles it uses for the US, United Kingdom, France, Canada, et cetera for Turkey”; that is, by failing to block specific content in response to Turkish legal orders. “This is the most important issue for us,” said Kuzu. “There are insults, swearing and porn about Turkish citizens on Twitter.”
An (il)legal order?
Although Turks may be accustomed to online censorship at this point, a recent study by PewResearch’s Global Attitudes Project suggested that support for uncensored Internet access is quite high, at 58% (only 6% of respondents said it was “not important at all,” while 23% abstained or said they didn’t know).
In fact, Turkey’s own president, Abdullah Gül, has spoken out against the ban, fittingly, on Twitter. He also seemed to recognize its futility, saying that it was “not technically possible to block access to platforms used all over the world.”
As President, Gül has veto power over laws, but as experts have pointed out, there is no law that justifies the ban on Twitter. Internet Law No. 5651—passed in 2007—prohibits online content in eight different categories and authorizes the Turkish Supreme Council for Telecommunications and IT (TIB) to block a website when there’s “adequate suspicion” that the site hosts illegal content. In this case, however, there does not seem to be a legal order backing up the ban.
Turkish civil society isn’t merely live-tweeting the ban. On Monday, the Turkish Journalists’ Association filed a complaint in a local Ankara court arguing that the ban was in violation of free expression. In Istanbul, a similar case was filed at the Constitutional Court of Turkey, which has the authority to revoke the ban.
Twitter has proved invaluable in Turkey and around the world for sharing information, organizing actions, and simply connecting with friends. EFF unequivocally opposes Turkey’s attempts to stifle speech and urges the Turkish government to restore access to Twitter immediately.