Around midnight last night, Turkey attempted to block access to Twitter after recorded conversations involving Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and alleged corruption were leaked on the service. Both the Erdogan administration and his opposition allege that Twitter is flush with “robot lobbies”: fake “bot” accounts pushing misinformation from both sides.
But the ban hasn’t been as effective as Erdogan might have hoped, with many Turks accessing the service Friday.
Perhaps the most notable disregard for the ban involves Turkish President Abdullah Gul, who tweeted that “one cannot approve of the complete closure of social media platforms.” Twitter has also told affected users how to bypass the ban with text messaging services and, according to the Guardian, others have been using virtual private networks (VPNs) to continue tweeting.
The ban has backfired: it was meant to stifle political unrest ahead of local elections, and has instead led to international backlash, strife within the Turkish government, and disregard for the Prime Minister’s wishes. In his attempt to assert authority by silencing his detractors and blocking access to Twitter, Erdogan may have caused more problems than he wanted to solve.
Banning Twitter isn’t particularly novel. The company even noted government attempts to stifle free speech by blocking its service in its S-1 filing, as I pointed out in October 2013:
‘Governments have sought, and may in the future seek, to censor content available through our products and services, restrict access to our products and services from their country entirely or impose other restrictions that may affect the accessibility of our products and services for an extended period of time or indefinitely,’ Twitter says in its S-1 filing, adding later that ‘we believe that access to Twitter has been blocked in these countries primarily for political reasons.’
That the ban isn’t necessarily surprising doesn’t make Erdogan’s disregard for freedom of speech any less troubling. Blocking Twitter limits the ability of Turkey’s citizens to communicate with each other and with the outside world — or at least it would, if the ban had been successful.
Reactions from around the Web
UNC iSchool assistant professor Zeynep Tufekci writes about the ill-considered ban on Medium:
The president of Turkey had to circumvent a court order to tweet, and tens of thousands of citizens were right there to talk with him, give him support, chide him for his previous acts, and to generally comment. Twitter may be banned in Turkey legally, but in reality, the only thing that the government has managed to do is ban its own supporters from Twitter. That doesn’t sound like a smart strategy.
The New York Times reports that Turkey’s government is casting the ban as a legal matter instead of a political ploy:
The shutdown occurred 10 days before local elections and came after Mr. Erdogan lashed out at Twitter at an election rally in the western town of Bursa on Thursday, saying that he did not care about international reaction if national security was at stake.
Government officials have also sought to justify the attempted blockage by saying Twitter had been used to invade privacy. The Turkish telecommunications authority said on Friday that the site had been blocked after citizens complained that their privacy had been breached. After Twitter refused to remove some messages, the authority said, ‘there was no other choice.’
The Washington Post notes the inevitability of Erdogan’s attempt to block access to Twitter and other social platforms:
Erdogan’s showdown with Twitter has been long coming. In mid-2013, thousands of protests ripped across Turkey ostensibly in opposition to a proposed urban development of Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park. But many say that discontent was more rooted in the government’s shift away from secularism – Erdogan is Muslim — and its recent crackdown on freedom of press and expression.
Quartz covers the difficulty associated with blocking popular websites:
Censorship of social media sites like Twitter and YouTube has been successful in China, but that’s mostly because they were never popular there. Once users reach a critical latch on a social network, as Turkey has with Twitter, it’s much harder to clamp down.
Pando weighs in
I wrote about the importance of Internet access and the ability to access social platforms after Syria’s government (allegedly) severed the country’s Internet connection in November 2012:
Were Patrick Henry alive today, his famous quotation would probably go something like this: “Give me an Internet connection, or give me death!” The ability to communicate with people across the Earth is not only possible, it’s expected, in the same way we expect oxygen to flow into our lungs.
The bastardization of Henry’s famous line was no mistake. For [CloudFlare CEO Matthew] Prince, and for many others who are keeping an eye on the situation in Syria, an Internet connection is Liberty. The ability to transmit information, to be heard and to hear, is an expression of freedom. Severing that connection is akin to binding and gagging Liberty herself.
I wrote about Iran’s attempts to use Twitter as a propaganda-spreading tool even as it blocks access to the service after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani tweeted about a conversation with President Obama in October 2013:
It’s unlikely that many of his constituents saw the tweet — and not just because Rouhani, or whoever manages his account, deleted it shortly after it was posted. Iran has blocked access to Twitter since 2009. Anyone wishing to access the service must do so by circumventing the government’s restrictions or, apparently, achieving public office. Twitter is at once a useful public relations tool and a forbidden social network, in Iran at least.
Despite the challenges created by building a platform atop all of these contradictions, Twitter’s ability to become whatever its users want it to become might also be the service’s greatest asset. Nosingle description of Twitter encapsulates the service’s scope or purpose. Its usage varies from person to person as much as it does from country to country.