Turkey has been a bastion of Internet censorship for so long that EFF could write a regular feature called This Week in Turkish Internet Censorship and never run out of content. Last year’s highlights included the Turkish government blocking Twitter and YouTube—bans that triggered widespread protest and were eventually lifted by order of the Constitutional Court, citing concerns over free expression. Now, less than a month into 2015, Turkish authorities are already using the threat of new bans to bully social media companies into blocking content for them.
What kind of content drives the Turkish government to make these threats? Political content. The ban on YouTube began mere hours after the posting of a top-secret government meeting on Syria allegedly depicting government officials discussing a possible false-flag operation on Turkey in an effort to drag Turkey into Syria’s war, as well as audio recordings that seemed to imply corruption among figures in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s close circle. The more recent threats stem from a court-issued ban on publication of news related to an incident in which two Syria-bound trucks belonging to Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) were stopped by a prosecutor who sought to have police search the vehicles. Signed proceedings related to the search were recently leaked on Twitter, allegedly showing that arms belonging to MİT were found in the trucks. Both Facebook and Twitter took down the content for users in Turkey in response to government bullying, though neither company is legally required to comply with a court order from a country in which they have no offices.
As if that wasn’t enough, Turkish Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, returned from Paris with a promise of government action against the kind of material that Charlie Hebdo was attacked for publishing, including images of the Prophet Mohammad. The government has made good on that promise by launching a criminal investigation into Cumhuriyet, one of Turkey’s largest daily newspapers, for printing a selection of controversial cartoons published by Charlie Hedbo. And on Sunday, a Turkish court ordered Facebook to block several pages deemed insulting to the Prophet Mohammad. According to the New York Times, a Facebook employee familiar with the matter confirmed that Facebook took down the pages, though there is no official statement from Facebook at this time.
EFF is deeply concerned about Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s continued attacks on free expression, following directly in the footsteps of his censorious predecessor, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. We are equally disappointed in Twitter and Facebook for censoring content when they are not legally obliged to do so and demonstrating to the Turkish government that their bullying tactics are effective. If American social media companies continue to do the Turkish government’s bidding every time they threaten to block their service, they become complicit in Turkey’s long history of silencing dissent under the guise of “insult” or “national security.” We will be keeping a close eye on the situation as it develops.