According to a new report by Freedom House, web freedom across the globe declined for the sixth consecutive year. Turkey placed among the red-flag states in terms of web freedom in 2015-2016 and is now rated “not free” in “Freedom on the net 2016” report after repeated blocking of social media. The country’s status score is “61/100 not free” with 13/25 for obstacles to access, 21/35 for limits on content and 27/40 for violations of user rights.
Turkey entered a state of emergency on 21 July 2016, and this will remain until 21 January 2017, if no further extensions are made by the government. Along with unprecedented attacks on media pluralism and prosecution of journalists, writers, academics and public servants after failed coup attempt, internet restrictions continue at an alarming rate in the country.
Tensions heightened in the country following general elections in June and November of 2015 and a series of deadly terrorist attacks. Gag orders on the dissemination of images and videos of the bombings were introduced by the authorities, resulting in the blocking of hundreds of websites – over 100 000 websites were reportedly blocked as of 2016. Gag order blocking continues to increase, affecting a wide variety of political, social, and religious content. Access to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube was repeatedly throttled until the companies removed controversial content. Specific hashtags related to the bombing locations, like #Istanbul, #Ankara, and #Diyarbakir, were temporarily filtered from Instagram. Counterterrorism operations in the southeastern region of the country repeatedly resulted in the suspension of 3G networks, affecting millions of residents for days at a time. The most significant obstacle to internet access in Turkey remains the shutting down of telecommunications networks during security operations, mainly in the southeastern part of the country. These internet shutdowns are obvious violations of the right to information and access at a moment when internet access is of huge importance to individuals. Dozens of news agencies, media outlets and social media accounts covering Kurdish issues have been either blocked or shut down for allegedly promoting terrorist propaganda over the past year.
The most recent social media blockage that also included virtual private network (VPN) restrictions occurred starting on 4 November. Alternative Informatics Association (Alternatif Bilisim) released an emergency notice for further dissemination and international coverage. This strategic operation was also planned at a specific time when detainment and arrest of dissident politicians took place in southeast Turkey.
Turkey is consistently featured among the countries with the highest number of removal requests sent to Twitter. Of all of the tweets “withheld” by Twitter around the world in the second half of 2015, Turkey accounted for almost 90 percent. According to Transparency Report, requests from courts and government agencies reached 2211 and rose to 2493 in the first half of 2016. In each reporting period, Twitter indicated it complied in 23 percent of cases. Twitter did file a court case after being fined by the Turkish information and communications technology authority (BTK) for failing to remove “terrorist propaganda”. Over the past year, hundreds of Twitter users faced charges of insulting government officials, defaming President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, or sharing propaganda in support of terrorist organisations. In some cases, individuals, mostly journalists have been imprisoned.
Privacy and data protection is also a sensitive issue in Turkey. Even though a new data protection law has been adopted, how this law will be implemented still remains a mystery with the dismissal of the Turkish Telecommunications Authority (TIB) and transfer of all authority to BTK. The Alternative Informatics Association issued a press release on the massive data leak in March 2016, including the addresses, identity numbers, and other personal information of almost 50 million Turkish citizens. Binali Yildirim, Transport and Communication Minister at the time, admitted that the breach appeared to date back to at least 2010. An expert stated that the data was taken from the government’s official Population Governance Central Database (MERNIS) around 2009 and later illegally sold to foreclosure firms.
Active internet users and developers in Turkey were alarmed and shocked on 9 October 2016 when cloud storage services including Google Drive, Dropbox and Microsoft’s OneDrive as well as code hosting service GitHub were blocked by the government to suppress the leak of emails belonging to the Minister of Energy and Natural Resources Berat Albayrak, who is the son-in-law of President Erdogan. The ban was lifted after 48 hours following the public protest and pressure by prominent actors of the digital market.
Digital surveillance and cyber security measures are also worrisome for netizens in Turkey. Before the passage of the Homeland Security Act in March 2015, the law allowed Turkish security forces to conduct intelligence wiretapping for 24 hours in urgent situations without a court order. With the new law, the time limit was increased to 48 hours; the new requirement is that wiretapping officials notify their superiors. In addition, the Ankara High Criminal Court is solely authorised to decide whether the wiretapping is legitimate. It is necessary to mention that despite constitutional guarantees, most forms of telecommunication continue to be tapped and intercepted.
With social media purported as a threat to national security, intrusive government surveillance and the proven use of sophisticated malware tools by law enforcement authority, internet freedom is on a very negative course in Turkey.
Freedom on the net 2016: Silencing the messenger: Communication apps under pressure
Freedom on the net 2016: Turkey, country profile
To no one’s surprise, Erdogan backs extending Turkey’s state of emergency (29.09.2016)
New internet shutdown in Turkey’s Southeast: 8% of country now offline amidst Diyarbakir unrest (27.10.2016)
Emergency notice: Internet blockages in Turkey
Transparency report: Turkey
Twitter sues Turkey over ‘terror propaganda’ fine
Journalist detained in Turkey over tweets
Turkey blocks Google Drive, Dropbox, OneDrive and GitHub to stop email leaks
National Security Council under Erdoğan updates top secret national security “book”
EDRi: Turkey: “The worst menace to society” helps to defeat the coup
(Contribution by Asli Telli Aydemir, EDRi member Alternative Informatics Association, Turkey)