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Turkey’s Twitter problem

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s advisers try to explain the indefensible, which has set back Turkey’s image abroad.
A board shows the alternative ways to access Twitter, is placed at an election campaign office of the main opposition Republican's People's Party (CHP) in Istanbul March 25, 2014. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan rails against Twitter as part of a plot to blacken him and portray his Turkey as corrupt; but Turks in growing numbers are exploring ever more innovative ways to beat his ban in what has become a cyber-battle of wits. Last week, few Turks were conversant with technical terms such as VPN or DNS, but th

Turkey’s ban on Twitter has become a major topic in the international media. The government insists the ban is not a political decision, but the result of a court ruling. No matter what the reason is, blocking access to Twitter is unacceptable in terms of basic rights and freedoms. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government will no doubt pay a price.

Moreover, enforcing the ban is technically impossible. Turks have continued to use Twitter despite the ban, using alternative DNS settings. AKP ministers and parliament members continue to tweet as well. So, banning Twitter is not only wrong and absurd, but practically impossible. This nonsensical situation will come to an end within several days.

I discussed the ban in detail with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s advisers, conveying to them the views I explained above. The arguments the advisers made to me can be summarized as:

  • The “protective measure” imposed on Twitter is the result of the Twitter management’s indifference to hundreds of court rulings issued since January.
  • Turkey’s Communications Directorate (TIB) had received Turkish court rulings concerning violations of personal rights and privacy and had asked Twitter to remove the related content. Twitter, however, ignored the court rulings.
  • To prevent irreparable damage to personal rights, blocking Twitter has been applied as a protective measure. TIB has acted in line with the “Law on the Regulation of Internet Publications and the Prevention of Crimes Committed via such Publications” and other related legislation.
  • The Turkish state has the obligation to protect the rights and interests of its citizens. All social media sites, including Twitter, must respect Turkey’s legal rules and comply with Turkish court rulings. Media outlets are free to publish whatever they like as long as they comply with the law and respect personal rights, including the norms of privacy.
  • Certain gangs have been using Twitter as a tool for systematic character assassination, releasing illegally obtained recordings and dubbed wiretaps.
  • Continued disregard for court rulings issued in line with the law and persisting violations of personal rights are the main reason for enforcing the protective measure.
  • Other countries have enforced similar protective measures on the same grounds in the past, blocking illegal social media dissemination of content that violates individual rights and endangers national security.
  • Social media sites, including Twitter, must comply with the principle that “whatever constitutes a crime in real life constitutes a crime in the cyber-realm.”
  • Twitter’s indifference and its unilateral and prejudiced attitude are hard to understand. Twitter’s stance is causing damage to its own commercial brand, while creating misleading and unfair perceptions about Turkey.
  • The governments that Erdogan has led since coming to power have always placed importance on the Internet and the opportunities it offers. They have seen the Internet as a pluralist and civic platform representing a precious realm of advancing democracy. The government has firmly encouraged the development of the Internet, proud of expanding Internet services even to villages.
  • Erdogan is not against the Internet, but against the circulation of illegally obtained recordings seeking to damage citizens’ reputations and national security via Twitter and similar social media sites.
  • Twitter’s Transparency Report for the period from July 1 to Dec. 31 last year shows a significant increase in information requests the company received from governments and copyright owners. The report classifies the requests in three main categories: information requests from governments, removal requests from governments and copyright notices under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The total number of requests in the second half of 2013 increased by 22% from the same period the previous year.
  • The United States topped the list of government information requests with 59%, followed by Japan with 15% and France and Britain with 4%. Requests from Turkey make up less than 10% of the 1,410 requests that have been evaluated.
  • Requests from governments and other authorities for the removal of content on grounds of illegality increased five times from the previous period. France submitted 305 of the 365 requests in the second half of 2013, followed by Russia with 14. Turkey made only two requests.
  • The report shows that, in line with Twitter’s increasing popularity and growing amount of posts, copyright notices to the company also increased. The removal decisions, which increased 16% from the previous period, affected 12,243 accounts. A total of 26,506 tweets were deleted and 5,847 media contents removed.
  • According to the Twitter report, most requests came from the United States. While the majority of other countries submitted requests involving fewer than 10 users, the 679 requests from the United States, accounting for nearly 80% of all requests, concerned 948 accounts. It is interesting to note that 75% of those 679 requests were met.

In the meantime, Yalcin Akdogan — a well-known and outspoken adviser to the prime minister — is irked also by the European Union’s statement on the issue.

Here is what Akdogan said: “The European Union should have been more cautious in its statement on Twitter. It should have taken into account the obvious court rulings and aggression against personal rights. Doesn’t the European Union care about personal rights and court rulings? Failing to recognize this aspect of the matter while publicizing the prevention measure as a ban, presenting it as a permanent shutdown of Twitter, is an erroneous stance.

“We have here issues taken to court via citizens’ complaints and subsequent court rulings relayed to Twitter. Pornographic content has been posted from a fake account using the name of one lady. This is a direct aggression against personal rights. The person in question had taken the issue to the court and got a ruling, but Twitter failed to implement the court ruling. There are other similar rulings that pertain directly to personal rights and have nothing to do with the government or political matters. Twitter has failed to implement those court rulings, [flouting] the rights and freedoms of those people. As a result, a preventive measure was applied. And since tweets cannot be blocked on an individual basis, the whole system is being blocked.

“Facebook removes objectionable content when it receives court rulings, but Twitter does not. This amounts to saying, ‘I don’t recognize neither the Republic of Turkey nor its laws nor any personal rights and freedoms.’ They are being a bully. And no one can be a bully vis-a-vis personal rights, the Turkish state and its laws. They will have to take seriously the Turkish state’s laws, just as they take seriously the laws of the United States, Britain and other countries and reach compromises with them.”

So, that’s how Erdogan’s inner circle sees the Twitter ban. The government is right about Twitter’s indifference, but in my opinion, sending out the image of a Turkey on a par with Russia and China does no good for the country. There is no reason justifying the blocking of Twitter. Enforcing the ban has made it hard for Turkey to explain its just reasons to the international community. Turkey is not a country that deserves such a distorted image abroad.

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