Why you should care

Turkey’s president is “increasingly against the Internet every day.” There’s more to be done than sigh. 

It couldn’t have been a more gracious host. In September, the government of Turkey hosted the Internet Governance Forum, an annual U.N. conference on Internet policy that brings together governments, companies, civil society, and technical and academic experts from around the world to discuss Internet issues, including how to protect human rights online. Turkey played its part perfectly, offering a glamorous conference center with a view of the Bosporus.

But immediately after the international Internet experts departed, the Turkish government showed its true hand. The parliament adopted a new law that, among other changes, increased the powers of the Telecommunications Directorate, a regulatory body, to censor the Internet and access user data without strong legal checks. Though the timing was brazen, the decision wasn’t a surprise.

We will tear this Twitter-shmitter out at the roots. … This has nothing to do with freedom-shmeedom.

— Prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan

This isn’t the first time the Turkish government has tried to have it both ways, embracing the Internet for economic development while repressing content — and people — it doesn’t like. In May of last year, then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Silicon Valley to tour the offices of Microsoft, Google and Apple and announced his plans to establish Turkey’s own “Informatics Valley” to encourage growth of the tech industry.

But one week later when the Taksim Gezi Park protests began and protesters relied heavily on Twitter to coordinate and spread the news, Erdogan called social media “the worst menace to society.” When Turkish citizens again used social media last March to leak wiretapped telephone conversations implicating politicians (including Erdogan) in corruption, he cut to the chase: “We will tear this Twitter-shmitter out at the roots. The international community can say this or that; it has nothing to do with them. This has nothing to do with freedom-shmeedom.” Twitter and YouTube were blocked over the next few days.

Is that the language of someone who wants ties with Silicon Valley and wants to build one of his own? Over the last seven years, I’ve visited in Turkey in a range of jobs related to free expression, and seen its decline along the way. I was in Turkey in 2007 working for a leading English-language newspaper when I learned the government’s restrictions on free expression firsthand. On my first day, my editors taught me which lines were not to be crossed and what words to use to describe the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK (always “outlawed”); Cyprus; Mustafa Kemal Ataturk; and the “alleged” Armenian genocide. Several reporters at the paper were facing lawsuits for overstepping those lines.

The sun sets over Taksim Square in Istanbul, Turkey, as thousands of citizens gather during the Gezi Park protests.

The sun sets over Taksim Square in Istanbul, Turkey, as thousands of citizens gather during the Gezi Park protests.

Source Jenna Pope/Getty

In early 2007 YouTube had been blocked for the first time for “insulting Turkishness” — a crime under the Turkish penal code — by permitting access to videos that the government deemed offensive to Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. Google (YouTube’s parent company) ultimately agreed to block the content to users within Turkey, and access was restored. But soon afterward, the government escalated its demands, saying YouTube should make “offensive” videos inaccessible to all its users worldwide. The company refused, and YouTube was blocked for more than two years.

The blocking of Twitter and YouTube in March, after the corruption videos got much more international attention, put the spotlight on tactics the Turkish government has built up to repress the Internet: restrictive laws, widespread censorship (tens of thousands of websites blocked), prosecution of users on vague charges (29 Twitter users are on trial right now for tweets during the Gezi protests), constantly increasing capabilities for surveillance and government access to user data.

Turkey is an attractive market. But the political risks are an economic liability.

It also highlighted the types of decisions global companies must make when operating in countries where market opportunities come with political risks. According to a new report by Freedom House, a nongovernmental organization, Turkey is Twitter’s eighth largest market, with about 11 million users sending approximately 8 million tweets a day. More than 70 percent of the population ages 15 to 64 is on Twitter. YouTube is the third most popular site in Turkey; Twitter is the sixth. With more than half of the Turkish population yet to get online, Turkey is an attractive market. But the political risks are an economic liability. As Twitter’s vice president for global public policy, Colin Crowell, said in April in The New York Times , “Obviously, turning off our service does not add to the attractiveness of making an investment, and the climate for investment for a company like ours has to include a certain understanding about service continuity.”

When Twitter was barred in the spring, the company pushed back, tweeting workarounds for its users and challenging the block in court. After the ban was lifted, Twitter sent a delegation to Turkey to meet with the government. The government presented Twitter with a list of demands: that the company open a local office, reveal the identification of users who posted corruption stories, block some posts and pay taxes on its advertising revenue from Turkey, which the government estimated to be $35 million a year. Twitter said it agreed to some and not to others. People have since noted a change in the relationship. According to the company’s 2013 transparency report, the Turkish government sent Twitter nine official requests for content removal in 2013, none of which the company complied with. In the first half of 2014, the government had submitted 186 requests, 30 percent of which Twitter honored by removing tweets.

An anti-goverment protestor with gas mask uses a mobile phone to read the news on social media as demonstrators gather at midnight in Taksim Gezi Park on June 13, 2013.

An anti-government protestor with gas mask reads the news on social media.

Source Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty

While Turkey’s top court overturned parts of the new repressive measures last week, Erdogan, now president, made clear that he wasn’t backing down, saying in a meeting with press freedom groups: “I am increasingly against the Internet every day.” Now more than before, the international community is watching how these companies and others act in big markets with high risks. We should measure their behavior not only in Turkey when the news cycle is focused on them, but in how they manage human rights challenges across the markets they engage in.

What’s clear is that companies can’t do it alone as incidents arise. Programs like the Global Network Initiative (GNI), to which Google belongs, provide principles and guidelines for companies on how to respect user rights when governments make these types of demands. (The NYU Center for Business and Human Rights, where I work, participates in the GNI.) There are emerging global best practices — for example, blocking content only to users within the country whenever possible, instead of to the global user base. As companies manage these challenges country by country, they need consistent standards and internal processes to take human rights risks into account across their operations.

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