Since 2010, freedom of the press and the freedom to access the internet in the Republic of Turkey has steadily decreased. Journalists are frequently imprisoned or have their movements restricted. Some estimates suggest that Turkey is responsible for one-third of all journalists imprisoned worldwide.
Since the attempted coup of 2016, internet censorship has also significantly increased. Over 100,000 websites have been permanently or repeatedly blocked, including YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Dropbox, Wikipedia, WhatsApp, Periscope, and Imgur.
In addition to blocking and censoring websites, the Turkish Government has many ways of restricting internet use. They sometimes practices bandwidth throttling or shut down the internet completely. Furthermore they monitor communications and prosecute individuals for statements made on social media. These actions have led to Freedom House downgrading the country to a “Not Free” rating.
In this article, we will be examining how and why the Turkish Government censors internet access. Moreover, you can read what media can and cannot be accessed in the Republic. Finally you can find out how Turkish citizens try to circumvent these restrictions.
Why is The Internet Censored in Turkey?
The political situation in Turkey over the past decade has become increasingly volatile. Since 2016 the country has suffered more than a dozen terrorist attacks, economical problems, and a failed military coup.
In response to these political upheavals, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has instituted widespread restrictions on freedom of speech. Furthermore, they have increased the influence of Islam over government policy.
The reasons the Turkish Government gives for such wide-ranging restrictions of media, internet, and press are varied. They say they want to stabilize the state and monitor terrorist activities. They also ban media that is prohibited under Islam and they prosecute incidents of libel or slander.
In response to these claims, several organizations, including Freedom House, Reporters Without Borders, and the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe found that the restrictions on media access, freedom of speech and expression, and access to the internet significantly favored the social and political aims of the AKP.
How Does the Turkish Government Censor the Internet?
Censorship can take different shapes. Below you can read what laws the Turkish government uses to impose censorship. Moreover, you can learn when and how they use these methods of censorship.
Since July 20th 2016, Turkey has been in a “state of emergency”, granting President Erdoğan and his cabinet extraordinary powers. This has allowed the government to bypass parliamentary and constitutional checks. As a result they were able to issue a series of executive decrees that have blocked websites, shut down communication networks, and resulted in 50,000 arrests.
On August 15, 2016, President Erdoğan published Decree No. 671, which amended the Law on Digital Communications. The decree granted the government the power to take “any necessary measures” to block websites, restrict internet access and censor media in relation to “national security, public order, prevention of crime, protection of public health and public morals, or protection of the rights and freedoms”.
Decree No. 671 also obliges Telecoms companies to comply with any government order within 2 hours of receiving it.
In cases where Decree No. 671 does not apply, Article 7 of the Anti-Terrorism Law is often used to censor media coverage. They will suggest that it “legitimizes, glorifies or incites violent methods or threats”. Article 7 is often used to censor news media coverage of police and military actions. Especially in the politically volatile majority Kurdish southeastern region.
Criticism of President Erdoğan or his government in print or on social media often results in individuals being prosecuted. For websites this can mean being blocked or taken down under Article 125 of the Turkish criminal code.
Article 125 carries a minimum 1-year sentence for defaming a public official. Article 299 imposes a prison sentence of up to four years for insulting the president.
Restrictions on Connectivity
The backbone for Turkey’s internet infrastructure is provided by the Internet Service Provider (ISP) TTNET, a subsidiary of Türk Telekom. Turkey’s Under secretariat of Treasury owns 30% of Türk Telekom’s shares. This allows them significant control over the country’s largest internet provider.
The Turkish Government has repeatedly used bandwidth throttling to deny its citizens access to the internet during times of civil unrest. In 2016, phone and internet shutdown affected over 12 million residents of 10 Turkish cities for 6 hours. One month later, a similar shutdown suspended mobile and landline internet access to 11 cities. This meant that 6 million citizens were cut off from the internet.
Access to certain news media and social media websites have been selectively throttled to reduce the spread of information. Connections to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and WhatsApp were throttled or blocked entirely during the Istanbul Ataturk Airport terrorist attack, the 2016 coup attempt, the 2016 Gaziantep bombing, and the assassination of Russian ambassador Andrey Karlov.
Content Removal and Filtering
The Turkish Government proactively filters internet content and blocks access to over 100,000 websites. Using Deep Packet Inspection (DPI), ISPs analyze unencrypted internet traffic. This way they can also block users from accessing content that has been blacklisted by the government.
Turkey’s Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK) requires all ISPs to register for a certificate of activity before providing connection services. As part of this registration, ISPs and internet cafes are obliged to comply with government restrictions. If they do not comply they risk having their certificate revoked.
The Turkish Government is responsible for over 75% of all removal request submitted to Twitter. They consistently submitted the largest number of removal requests, per year, since 2016.
Since 2016, the BTK and the Turkish Security Services have been actively attempting to block VPN and encrypted email or messaging services. These restrictions have been justified by suggesting encrypted messaging or email facilitates communication by terrorist groups.
Monitoring of User Activity
In 2014, the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) was granted expanded powers to access communications data without the need for a court order. The same expanded powers shielded MİT agents from prosecution under civilian law.
There have been numerous cases of individuals being arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned for making anti-government statements or propagating “terrorist propaganda” on social media.
ISPs are required to store internal IP distribution logs using software supplied by the BTK. These logs must be kept for 1 year and made available to the BTK upon request. Again they can get these without a court order. Since 2011, all suppliers of encryption software are required to provide their encryption keys to the BTK before they can offer their products to Turkish citizens or companies.
What Exactly is Censored by the Turkish Government?
The Regulation of Publications on the Internet and Suppression of Crimes Committed by Means of Such Publication Act prohibits ISPs from providing access to any content related to “child sexual abuse, drug use, the provision of dangerous substances, prostitution, obscenity, gambling, suicide promotion, and crimes against Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey”.
90% of all websites blacklisted by the BTK are listed as “obscene”. This means they were blocked for featuring sexual content, pornography or having certain sexual keywords in their domain. This extends to LGBTQ websites.
Criticism of Islam
Websites can also be blocked for criticizing or demeaning Islam, Islamic figures or promoting atheism. Websites advocating the theory of evolution have also been found to be actively filtered.
Criticism of the State
Due to certain unclear definitions under recent Turkish laws, websites can be blocked or shut down for “criticizing the Turkish state” or featuring “terrorist organization propaganda”. This has led to a crackdown on news websites that feature any viewpoints that contradict those of the government.
Between 2016 and 2017, the BTK blacklisted 17 news websites that were deemed to have criticized the state, government, or president. Another popular reason for blacklisting a website can be a show of sympaty with the Kurdish minority. For example, news outlets that covered current events in a manner that was sympathetic to Turkey’s Kurdish population or the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) got blacklisted.
Wikipedia is permanently blocked in Turkey after refusing to remove articles on the conflict in Syria and state-sponsored terrorism that were deemed to be critical of the Turkish state. Social media website such as Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp and Periscope and routinely throttled or blocked.
Access to Dropbox, OneDrive, GitHub, and Google Drive are also regularly restricted. This is due to the 2016 release of thousands of emails from the Minister of Finance and Treasury, Berat Albayrak, onto those services by the hacker group Redhack.
The Turkish Government has recently taken steps to regulate streaming services. A draft decree released by the government in February 2018 would require global streaming services such as Netflix, Spotify, and YouTube to obtain broadcast licenses from the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK).
How are Turkish Citizens Getting Around Internet Censorship?
As the blocks on social media, non-partisan news coverage, and political viewpoints that contradict the current government increase, Turkish citizens are increasingly looking for ways to circumvent these restrictions.
VPN services continue to be the most popular way of obtaining unrestricted access to the internet. However, the BKT continues to attempt to restrict access to popular VPN services.
Using Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) software, the BTK is able to identify and block traffic from VPN ports. If you are a Turkish resident, or just visiting Turkey, picking a VPN service that is able to disguise its traffic as regular HTTPS traffic is an important step in being able to consistently access filtered content.
Encrypted messaging apps, such as Telegram, remain popular, although user figures in Turkey have dropped since 2016. This is because, after hundreds of Turkish citizens were arrested for using the Bylock app in 2016, many users are wary of using similar apps.
In December 2017, the BTK instructed IPS to start actively blocking IP addresses commonly used by the Tor anonymity network. While Turkish ISPs have been particularly successful in blocking the IP addresses of publicly available Tor exit nodes, Turkish users of the Tor web browser have struck back by producing an increasing number of Tor “bridges”.
These bridges are not listed in the main Tor directory. They use a number of traffic manipulation tools to prevent them being identified as Tor traffic by DPI. The creation of extra Tor bridges has allowed Tor usage in Turkey to remain stable despite the BTKs attempts to block access to it.
Since the attempted coup in 2016, freedom of the press and freedom to access the internet in Turkey have been on what Freedom Hours describes as a “starkly negative trajectory”.
Website-based news media providers are blocked or shut down for criticizing the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Turkey prosecutes ordinary citizens for posting political views on social media. Moreover the country leads the world in imprisoned journalists.
Access to content on the internet is heavily restricted. Users can expect regular bandwidth throttling and blocking of social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook.
The Turkish security services monitor a lot of communication. When trying to convict someone of insulting the government or supporting terrorism they often use emails and social media posts.
There seems to be no hope of these restrictions lifting any time soon. Thus, Turkish citizens continue to find ways to circumvent them. They do so by employing VPN services, encrypted messaging apps and anonymous browsers. This way they can access content that the BTK deems unsuitable. Most importantly, they can freely express their political views without fear of reprisal.