Experts think free VPN services will fall short of providing access to Twitter, expected to be rendered inaccessible due to drastic bandwidth restrictions to be imposed for failing to appoint a local representative in Turkey
As dissenting TV channels are summarily closed down, journalists are sentenced to prison due to their work in public interest, and newspapers are neutered and almost pushed to the brink through various forms of intimidation in Turkey, online content has been the target of rampant censorship at an alarming rate. Under mounting pressure of censorship and a whole slew of bans since 2007, the Internet is one of the critical fronts of power struggle these days.
Thousands of people have been subjected to investigations and threats, dismissed, detained, and arrested on the grounds of their social media posts. Rubbing salt in the wound is the new “social media law,” which is expected to ramp up the already rigorous censorship on the digital realm: Twitter, its live streaming app Periscope, and image sharing app Pinterest, that are the last platforms that have not opened offices or assigned local representatives in Turkey as required by the law, remain silent on the issue. In view of the fact that Periscope will be shut down in March, and that Pinterest can hardly be described as “politically disagreeable,” all eyes are on Twitter.
Experts are of the view that from the start, Twitter was essentially the target of the social media law. Unless it breaks its silence, Twitter will next face a crippling bandwidth reduction in Turkey, which translates to unsent tweets and a slow news feed for users.
If you happen to think that you can rely on virtual private networks (VPN) to circumvent the restrictions and access Twitter, think again: The majority of well-known free VPN services are currently blocked in Turkey, which means that in case of bandwidth reduction, there will be a marked decrease in the number of users accessing Twitter from Turkey. But what if Twitter breaks its silence and announces that it will appoint a local representative; what will happen then?
Professor Yaman Akdeniz of Istanbul Bilgi University, Evrensel columnist Gökhan Bayram and digital rights expert Şevket Uyanık shared their views on the legislation that came into effect in October 2020 and its possible ramifications.
Advertising ban was just around the corner when...
In July 2020, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, reacting to an array of allegedly insulting messages on Twitter targeting his daughter Esra Albayrak, who had welcomed her fourth child with the then Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, said: “These platforms don’t suit this country, this nation. We therefore want to bring [a bill] to the parliament to see to it that platforms like these are completely shut down, taken under control.”
And that is exactly what happened. Officials acted as swift as the wind to make sure that social media platforms are “taken under control;” to that end, a contentious draft bill, widely known as “the social media law,” that had been floated and withdrawn upon public outcry earlier in the year was rushed through the Turkish Parliament with added provisions and increased penalties to amend the law titled “Regulation of Publications on the Internet and Suppression of Crimes Committed by means of Such Publications.” The point was, as the name suggested, to “regulate” social media. The bill passed, the decision was published in the Official Gazette and the legislation subsequently came into effect. From then on, social media providers with more than 1 million daily users in Turkey, such as Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and Instagram were required to designate local representatives in line with the law to readily respond to the demands of the government and individuals to block or remove content that is deemed offensive. Those who failed to do so risked facing bans on advertising revenues and their Internet bandwidth cut gradually by up to 90 percent.
The initial response was silence. When the deadline to appoint legal representatives on 2 November came and went by, none of the relevant social networks had taken any steps to comply with the law; the inaction of the platforms was met with incurring punitive sanctions. Turkey imposed on social networking providers an initial set of administrative fines of TL 10 million (approx. US$ 1,404,207) each, followed by a second set of fines of TL 30 million (approx. US$ 4,212,418) each on the grounds of their continued non-compliance with the regulation. The coming January was to see bans on advertising for the platforms when YouTube bowed and announced it would appoint a legal representative in Turkey. LinkedIn, Vimeo, TikTok, Facebook and Instagram followed suit one after the other. According to YouTube, the first among the platforms to make a public statement on the issue, “nothing [was to] change.” Google Inc., the parent company of YouTube, declared that it would establish a new limited company in Turkey. There is no public information regarding whether the remaining platforms will assign Turkish natural persons or legal persons established in Turkey as representatives in compliance with the law.
Twitter, Periscope, and Pinterest, on the other hand, have yet to comment on the issue. Periscope had announced it would be shut down in March 2021 due to shrinking usage; while Pinterest does not publish content that might conceivably disturb the government. Hence, the heavy burden lies on Twitter itself, which is rumored to be “the real target” of the said legislation. Twitter has so far issued no public indication with regard to their plans. On top of which, the platform restricted access to three tweets from the official account of Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, and removed and deleted a tweet from that of far-right Turkish Nationalistic Movement Party leader Devlet Bahçeli, President Erdoğan’s closest ally in the Parliament; the move was unprecedented in Turkish politics.
Twitter will be effectively unusable in Turkey
The first question on anyone’s mind is: What if Twitter maintains its silence? Yaman Akdeniz, a professor at Istanbul Bilgi University’s Faculty of Law and the co-founder of the Freedom of Expression Association (İFÖD), suggests that Twitter will face bandwidth reduction starting around April or May if the platform maintains its silence or announces that it will not comply with the new regulation: “Turkey will halve Twitter’s bandwidth in April, and if the silence continues, they will further throttle it by up to 90 percent. If we look beyond the technical aspect of the issue for a second, Twitter will be effectively unusable in Turkey as a result of this sanction. You will not be able to tweet, your news feed will slow down. And it is not just the dissenting voices, everybody will be affected by this. We might see a significant decrease in the number of users who access Twitter from Turkey as of April-May.”
Local representation means faster censorship and strict control
Communications and digital rights expert Şevket Uyanık argues that slashing of bandwidth by up to 90 percent would render Twitter essentially inaccessible. Recalling past access block orders and bans on numerous social media sites in Turkey, including Twitter, at times of public upheaval in recent history, Uyanık says: “Now there is a cover up for such practices. Local representation machinery will be put to use for faster censorship and strict control. But of course, these pertain to platforms that have more than a million users daily. The main problem here is censorship, control over digital spaces and blocking. We need to question this, and we need to struggle against this.”
Free VPN services might fall short
Gökhan Bayram, a columnist for the daily Evrensel, responds to whether VPN services can prove to be beneficial in the face of throttled up bandwidth: “Drastic bandwidth reduction will hamper average users’ access to these platforms significantly. It is, of course, theoretically possible to access such platforms via the Tor network or any VPN. However, since various VPN services and the Tor network have already been subjected to blocking and other restrictions in Turkey, most common and free VPN services will presumably fall short of solving this problem.”
The dilemma behind Twitter’s silence
And what if Twitter opens up an office or appoints a local representative in Turkey? That option, after all, is not entirely out of the picture. Akdeniz points out that we should look into the manner in which Twitter chooses to appoint a local representative in such a case. Stressing that Google, Facebook and other social network providers are probably calculating that they can rule out official demands from the government by taking advantage of some perceived loopholes in the regulation through legal entities they will establish, Akdeniz thinks the platforms should still leave room for when the wheels might come off: “This is that ‘honeymoon phase’ after a forced marriage. I don’t think it can last forever. Turkey is loud and clear in her demands: Platforms should comply with all the decisions issued to them and they should share user information and data with the officials. In case these demands are met, it will mean that these platforms will become a part of the unfair justice system in Turkey. Having in mind Twitter’s approach thus far with a view to its periodical transparency reports, we know that they rarely take notice of such demands submitted from Turkey. Twitter will have to reverse its approach completely if it ever comes to Turkey: that’s the dilemma behind Twitter’s silence. Contrary to other platforms that have chosen to be a part of the new Internet regime in Turkey due to commercial concerns, Twitter has so far marched to a different beat.”
Is Twitter the real target of the stringent legislation then? Stating that political criticism is predominantly concentrated on Twitter in comparison with other social network providers, Akdeniz says: “There are tons of dissident accounts [on Twitter] that the government wants to see shut down, but it seems such plans have backfired for now. I don’t think Twitter would withhold the accounts of news organizations, journalists, activists or dissenting voices that disturb the government, even if they designate a legal entity as a representative in the country.”
Companies will meet official demands because of financial burden
Between January and June 2020, Turkey submitted 347 legal information requests specifying 865 separate accounts to Twitter. Twitter complied with none of these requests. In the same period, Turkish officials issued 4,325 legal demands to remove content or specified accounts to the micro-blogging platform. Twitter’s compliance rate with these demands is 33 percent. Should Twitter assign a legal representative in Turkey, can the platform still reject similar demands? And at the cost of what?
As opposed to Akdeniz, Gökhan Bayram thinks Twitter will meet the demands of Turkish authorities if it appoints a local representative since failure to do so would culminate in a heavy financial burden for the social media giant: “I am sure the government knows that social media has been providing a breath of fresh air for people, that it has been instrumental in releasing the accumulated tension through slacktivism, etc.,” Bayram says on a different note, adding: “Therefore, the amount of sanctions against and the level of pressure towards the companies that appoint legal representatives will be dependent on the political climate and volatile interests. We will probably see a stifling exercising of censorship sometimes, and at times of relative political ease, we will see a looser grip on the platforms.”
Local representative will be an instrument of censorship and oppression
The person to undertake the prospective position of Twitter’s local representation, regardless of who they are, would risk becoming “an instrument of censorship and oppression,” according to Şevket Uyanık, who notes that Twitter’s next steps will be illustrative: “Because Twitter is a highly politicized platform. It shows you what people don’t want you to see. It’s also effortless to raise your voice by the simple act of tagging someone. Any platform that provides open space to things that the powers don’t want you to see -- whether it is traditional media or new media -- should be ‘closed down, banned or censored.’ And these platforms are the last remaining bastions of what is left of freedom of expression in the country. Those who are in favor of the law demand a domestic and national culture of the Internet, which is simply impossible to achieve.”
We will see what will happen after the government issues demands
What about the companies who have announced they would abide by the law and appoint local representatives; what are the recent developments on that front? “To this day, only Google has established a company,” says Yaman Akdeniz, “or rather a shell company, we should say, and they assigned a lawyer who resides in the US and who performs as either a manager or as a board member in various companies of Google, set up outside the US in a similar fashion. This person will never come and head the company here in person. This will be the novel model. Is there legal representation in the country? Yes, there is. The government has accepted this model for now so as to hold its ground. Otherwise, it seems highly unlikely for these companies to accept the government’s invitation. Then again, surely there will be some changes. But we’ll have to wait and see what will happen once the government issues its demands and how these companies choose to respond to them.”
We cannot depend on social media companies to defend our rights
Despite their limitations, social media platforms provide a rare outlet for exercising freedom of speech compared to other available options. There are ongoing public deliberations as to how these platforms should be regulated or moderated in many countries; countries, as a result, regulate social media differently. For Turkey, as is the case for many others, the discussion boils down to how such regulations would infringe upon freedom of expression. Law No. 5651, widely known as the Internet Law, has served since 2007. When new amendments to the Internet Law were introduced in 2014, allowing the now-defunct Directorate of Telecommunication and Communication to issue blocking orders ex officio, critics denounced the provisions, saying “the Internet as we know it is dying.” Things have become only worse since then.
In view of these circumstances, what can an average Internet user do?
Gökhan Bayram opposes the common misconception that “governments wish for extensive censorship mechanisms for social media, but social media companies fight back,” and adds: “There have been many instances where social media companies have had controversial practices and conducts that can simply be classified as censorship without any need for state interference. The real pivot of the controversy is who owns what percentage of censorship mechanisms: governments or the companies. It would be an overstatement to claim either governments or social media companies act in accordance with user rights; each are in it for either their financial gains or to further secure their positions, which leaves the burden, that is to defend our rights such as freedom of expression and the right to anonymity, again to us users. To achieve that, we all have to learn how to use digital security tools effectively and implement them accordingly and refrain from depending on this or that account on the profit and loss statements of some company to defend our rights. Otherwise, it is likely that the Internet might morph into a massive freak of unilateral propaganda machine in the future, increasingly silenced and deserted, where no one unaffiliated with governments or companies can breathe.”
Dark age of the Internet
Şevket Uyanık claims the circumstances have been deteriorating with each passing day. Asserting that escalating self-censorship has been particularly hazardous and a hard egg to crack, Uyanık says: “From the perspective of social movements, as Mark Andrejevic asserts, the Internet has become at once a facilitating utopia where forms of ownership are reproduced and a dystopia where surveillance and control are at their highest. And Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, says, ‘The internet, our greatest tool of emancipation, has been transformed into the most dangerous facilitator of totalitarianism we have ever seen. The Internet is a threat to human civilization.’ In short, we should perhaps call the last 10-15 years the dark age of the Internet. Of course, there will be freer tools, platforms and networking systems in the future. Because there are people who are working day and night to make that possible. What we can do for now is to support these people; that’s the best thing we can do.”
We will not be silenced
“We will not be silenced,” says Yaman Akdeniz: “The successive amendments resulted in a thoroughly restrictive legal regulation; in fact, for all intents and purposes, we should just call it a new regime. We cannot separate between access blocking decisions, content removals, investigations into social media posts, never-ending legal and criminal actions and the adamant push to bring social media platforms to their knees. The underlying aim is to silence dissident voices -- whether they come from the media or the general public -- and wear away at those who refuse to be silenced by means of judicial remedies. It will go on for as long as possible unless the government changes its course of action. But we will not be silenced, we will not succumb to weariness.”