Turkey Twitter Ban Recalls Books in the U.S. and Google in China

TurkeyOn Thursday Turkey’s Telecommunication Authority put in place a ban on Twitter following a court ruling. The ban is a refortification of an earlier ruling, for which Twitter users had found a workaround. This comes in the wake of a corruption scandal focused on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of the AK Party, and the PM claimed that Twitter had been used to defame his image. The U.S. State Department has spoken out against the censorship, calling for free speech and remembering books being banned and burned in prior centuries. Others recall when Google thought it had gotten its start in China, only to find that every screen that accessed it got error messages on the day that Google launched.

What’s troubling to Erdoğan is the lack of privacy through Twitter and how tweets and retweets can quickly go viral. At stake for him is that his detractors had located and posted illegally acquired recordings (wiretappings) of his voice and broadcast them across the internet via the microblogging site. One of the ministers in Erdoğan’s administration says that Twitter was, in fact, blocked due to municipal elections that are coming up on March 30. He says that the purpose is to not mar the voting process.

Prime Minister Erdoğan has ruled the political landscape in Turkey for the past 12 years, strengthening Turkey’s economy and making it a strong manufacturing and export force. At the same time, he has had zero tolerance for anyone who opposes his rule, which appears to some to include reduction of secularism in favor of overt Muslim politics. He asserts his commitment to secularism. Yet, his wife Emine, wears a headscarf to official functions despite a government ruling outlawing the practice.

Critics note other restrictions that Erdoğan has proposed, in keeping with Islamic belief. He tried to criminalize adultery and to introduce “alcohol-free zones,” although he was unsuccessful at both attempts. Now in his third term in office, Erdoğan’s goal is to rewrite the Turkish constitution, putting more power into the president’s hands. Then, his next step would be to move into that position.

The ban Thursday on Twitter led to a more stringent ban Saturday of Google Domain Name System (DNS) because people used that search engine to get into the site. The severe ruling causes some to recall the mass protests that erupted following the 2011 general election opposing the Turkish Prime Minister and his rule. Turkey finds itself more isolated on a daily basis, with the U.S. citing erstwhile book burning. Britain, Germany, and Canada join in opposing the Turkish ruling. To some, the tight hold on civil liberties is a reminder of human rights violations in other countries, such as China.

The decision of Germany to join in the opposition is significant, as it stands in stark contrast to its own painful past. In Nazi Germany there was a campaign to ceremonially burn books by Jewish, communist, liberal, anarchist, and socialist authors because their writings were considered subversive or they undermined the National Socialist administration.

In China, when Google launched its website on September 3, 2002, their efforts “came to an abrupt halt.” “That day, Chinese visitors who typed ‘www.google.com’ into their browsers got only error messages.” A Chinese human rights activist teaching at Berkeley advised businesses at the time against investing in China because of their human rights violations. However, “the Internet was different” in that it allowed people to connect with one another” and “Google’s presence could help fight censorship by increasing communication.”

When the Thursday Twitter ban was enacted in Turkey, users found a workaround by changing computer domain name information. The current ban disallows access that way, so some people in Turkey tried other methods. For example, they were able to use virtual private networks (VPNs). A lawyer specializing in information technology in Turkey said that blocking access to a website is against the law and is a direct confrontation against freedom of speech.

Mr. Erdoğan is incensed at his image being defamed and the lack of privacy, calling the voice recordings posted on Twitter deceitful and manufactured. In defense of the ban, he spoke out against not only Twitter, but also YouTube and Facebook, saying that he could not understand how anyone with good sense could defend them. He was defiant, saying that he did not care which countries opposed his ruling – that he wouldn’t listen to them.

For many, the ban in Turkey on the use of Twitter – and now Google DNS – is a harkening back to repressive regimes and book burnings in Nazi Germany and human rights violations in China. U.S. former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded to the shut-down with a tweet, noting the fundamental right of freedom to speak and to connect with others.

By Fern Remedi-Brown

Financial Times, Ltd.
BBC News Europe
The Herald Scotland
Todays Zaman (Turkey)
Levy, S., 2011. In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives. (Simon & Schuster, NY, 2011)