Censorship or digital sovereignty? How Turkey is seeking a new approach to social media

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In July 2021, the exiled Turkish journalist Erk Acerer was attacked and abused in his home in Berlin by three unknown perpetrators. He was told by the attackers that he should never write again. Afterwards, Acerer announced on Twitter that it was highly likely that they were supporters of Turkish President Recep Erdoğan and the AKP government. He said that he had already been repeatedly attacked in Turkey for his critical reporting. However, he said he would never surrender to „fascism,“ continue to work as a journalist and „never give up.“ The reporter had come to Germany from Turkey in 2017 because he and other journalists were threatened with a trial there. (Salmen 2021)

Up to 95 percent of conventional media such as newspapers and television are under government control in Turkey. Globally, Turkey is one of the countries where journalists are most frequently arrested. A recent study also found that Google systematically favors pro-government media such as Hürriyet, Milliyet and Sabah when disseminating information in Turkey.(Meinardus 2021)

For this reason, a lively use of social media has established itself among activists, government critics and opposition politicians. Platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are used to communicate alternative ideas and to network with like-minded people.(Sari 2020, Bellut 2021) Turkey is now a highly connected country with 63 million Internet users in 2020, and the country is among the top 15 in the world in terms of daily time spent on the Internet. (Meinardus 2021) Twitter in particular plays a prominent role for many Turks. For example, many users turn to their community with appropriate hashtags when they feel they are getting nowhere in the local justice system. The topics of violence, women’s rights and animal welfare in particular have already been discussed intensively online. (Karabat 2020)

In recent years, however, the Turkish government has taken a number of steps to undermine this ecosystem. According to Ömer Çelik, spokesman for the ruling AKP party, social media platforms are a source of „digital fascism“ and „digital dictatorship“. They would pose a threat to the country’s sovereignty. Originally created as platforms of freedom, social media had morphed into mechanisms that challenge the national will – „they collide with the national will, the country’s sovereignty and the law.“ President Erdoğan had previously described social media as a threat to national security on several occasions. (Stockholm Center for Freedom 2021)

As a result, a new law regulating social media platforms was passed as early as summer 2020. An amendment to media law number 5651 stipulates that platforms which are visited by more than one million people daily must assign a local representative in Turkey. If this is not done, the Turkish „Information and Communication Technologies Authority“ has the right to impose advertising bans and throttle the platforms‘ bandwidth by up to 95 percent. This is tantamount to blocking the websites. Furthermore, heavy fines are levied if platform operators do not comply with official requests to delete content within a few hours or do not submit a report every three months or store data of Turkish users outside Turkey.(ibid.)

The latter in particular is an approach with which Turkey joins a number of other countries. Increasingly, countries around the world are trying to gain sovereign control over their users‘ data and regulate how it is used, who has access to it, where it is stored and where it may flow to. As a result, many laws have been enacted in recent years that regulate so-called „data localization“ or „data residency.“ This basically means that data generated by citizens of a country must be stored within the national borders of that country. There is criticism of this approach because it could allegedly lead to increasing fragmentation of the Internet into national networks. Furthermore, there would be a danger that local intelligence services could gain better access to the data and use it for surveillance and repression.(Tager 2021)

The starting point for the change in the law in Turkey were some insulting tweets about President Erdoğan’s son-in-law and his wife when she gave birth to their fourth child. After the incident, the Turkish head of government called for a „clean-up“ of social media platforms – but he had already spoken out several times in advance about possible control. (ibid.)

According to Turkish government representatives, the German Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG) was the model for the law. This was passed in 2017 in order to be able to take action against hate speech, fake news and illegal content. The Turkish government argues that its own law is based on the NetzDG and therefore complies with generally accepted and thus legitimate principles. Even when it was passed in Germany, however, the NetzDG was controversial and there were (justified) fears that it could serve as a template for authoritarian governments. Indeed, states such as Russia and Venezuela also point to the NetzDG as justification for censorship measures on the Internet.(Sari 2020, Emert/Wölbert 2020) This clearly shows how the pursuit of digital sovereignty by liberal democracies is used as an argumentative weapon by states with deficits in the rule of law. (Kargar 2020)

In Turkey, the legislative initiative has definitely been crowned with success. At the beginning of 2021, Facebook announced that it wanted to open a representative office in the country. The same had already been initiated by YouTube, LinkedIn and TikTok. At that point, only Twitter, Periscope and Pinterest refused to set up a local office in Turkey. However, the Turkish government then banned Turkish companies from advertising on the platforms. Previously, the country had issued a fine of $5.43 million for each of the refusing social media networks. As a result, Twitter announced in the spring of this year that it would also establish a local branch in Turkey. Pinterest has also had a representative office in the country since 2021.(Avenarius 2021, Yackley 2021, Ergöçün 2021) Twitter announced that it would „protect the voices and data“ of Turkish users. However, human rights groups see this promise as unfulfillable. (Meinardus 2021)

According to the Freedom of Expression Association, Turkish authorities blocked more than 450,000 domains, 120,000 Internet links, and 42,000 tweets in the month after the law went into effect.(ibid.) So, in total, more than 450,000 websites are inaccessible in Turkey, and the country is one of the most frequent countries to submit deletion requests for content on Twitter and Facebook. Facebook has already censored groups that the Turkish government opposes in order to protect its business in the country. (Yackley 2021) Twitter, in turn, also follows an economic logic in its actions in Turkey that subordinates the interests of the individual to business interests. (Wilson/Hahn 2021) Meanwhile, more than a third of Turks use Twitter and Facebook as their primary source of information. (Yackley 2021)

Wikipedia was also inaccessible in Turkey for two years from 2017. The starting point was an article on the platform which stated that Turkish government officials were involved in oil deals with the Islamic State. However, the country’s Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that blocking Wikipedia was a violation of freedom of expression and the ban was subsequently lifted. (McKernan 2019)

Back in 2014 – shortly after the Gezi protests – the Turkish government passed a law allowing websites to be blocked without a court ruling. YouTube was subsequently blocked a second time. Back in 2007, Turkey had blocked access for three years. The reason for the block in 2014 was leaked audio recordings of a secret conversation between various Turkish representatives and intelligence officers about a possible military intervention in Syria. These were published by an anonymous account on YouTube. The Turkish government deemed this a „national security incident.“ Earlier, other footage had been posted on social media showing massive government corruption and President Erdoğan’s direct influence on the media. (Letsch/Rushe 2014)

Due to the website blocks, many Turks increasingly used circumvention software such as VPNs or the Tor network to still access content. The Turkish government therefore ensured at the end of 2016 that such tools could no longer be used in the country. Internet providers were urged to block access to the Tor network and VPN offerings. Since then, deep packet inspection has been used to identify Tor and VPN connections and make their use impossible. (Haase 2016)

However, the basic law governing the regulation of network content in Turkey is Law 5651 – „Law on the Regulation of Publications on the Internet and the Combating of Crimes Committed by Such Publications.“ This was enacted back in 2007. Initially, the main aim was to combat child pornography on the net. Later, gambling, drugs, insults to Turkishness and all forms of pornography, prostitution and homosexuality were added to the list. In addition to YouTube, the websites of Alibaba and WordPress, among others, were blocked. The latter platform in particular was an important tool of the local blogging scene. Law 5651 has been expanded several times by so-called addenda since it came into force. (Wendt 2015)

In 2021, the Turkish government continued to push ahead with its strict regulation of social media. According to media reports, it plans to introduce prison sentences of between one and five years for publishing and spreading fake news on social media channels. According to President Erdoğan, his party is working on a law to combat the „terror of lies. (Bianet 2021)

If we take a closer look at developments in Turkey, it becomes clear that digital sovereignty can indeed be established in a very restrictive manner through local laws. Many countries in the Middle East, such as Iran or Saudi Arabia, have similar approaches and goals. Digital sovereignty is understood here as control over the infrastructure of telecommunications and information technologies within the respective territory, as well as over the data produced by the citizens. This conjures up the image of a national vision of the Internet – a trend that does not always seem compatible with the global architecture of the Internet. The idea of digital sovereignty here provides the template for state attempts to select or even produce content that residents are allowed to consume. This often results in disinformation and propaganda.(Kargar 2020)

Based on the logic of political argumentation, however, the differences to liberal democracies – in Europe, for example – are not that great. In both cases, the starting point for more striving for digital self-determination is the fear of becoming too dependent on large tech companies from the USA or China. The fear is that these companies would aim for technical and economic dominance in cyberspace, which must be prevented by protecting sovereignty on the Internet. Means to an end, for liberal democracies as well as countries like Turkey, are data localization, Internet regulation, and surveillance of major social media platforms. As a result, countries with deficits in the rule of law refer to laws and policies in democratic states in their efforts to restrict free expression on the Internet and thus legitimize their actions.(ibid.)

The basic idea of digital sovereignty stems from authoritarian state leaders, who used the concept early on to restrict the rights of their own citizens. They referred to the element of a privileged state, which in turn justified digital repression. To date, these authoritarian states have not only implemented their understanding of digital sovereignty locally – they are also pushing for it on an international level. Governments such as those in China and Russia are taking advantage of the fact that the concept of digital sovereignty is still so ambiguous and are promoting a new, state-centric vision of Internet governance in global forums.(Tager 2021)

In recent years, however, the governments of democratic states have also taken up the concept – including the European Union. This has resulted in many different models of digital sovereignty globally. Each of these concepts is in turn shaped by different local ideas about human rights, the rule of law, and stable public institutions. Basically, this results in the problem that laws with partly similar wording are implemented differently in different regions – depending, for example, on whether there is a functioning system of separation of powers or not, or on which political and social culture and moral concepts prevail. The question now arises as to how these approaches compete with each other at the international level and which view will shape global organizations of Internet governance in the long term.(ibid)

Especially in the COVID-19 pandemic, efforts to regulate online content have increased globally. This is also the case in Turkey. In the months since the first known case of infection in the country, more than 1,000 social media users have been accused of spreading propaganda for a terrorist organization – including „sharing provocative Corona virus posts.“ Of them, more than 500 were arrested. Among those were journalists who had written various articles on the Corona situation in the country or shared messages about it on their social platforms. Turkish doctors were also investigated and targeted by the government for criticizing the country’s health policy. (Amnesty International 2020)

Turkey is not alone in this approach. A study by the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law has identified more than 50 cases where countries have introduced extension laws or policies that criminalize disinformation or restrict free speech in the wake of the pandemic. Mostly, these sets of rules are about the digital sphere. (Tager 2021)

In a press conference at the end of 2020, President Erdoğan announced that the issue of cybersecurity was inseparable from digitization and that it would be one of the country’s most important issues for the coming years. An increasing number of cyber threats go hand in hand with digitalization – including health education, he said. Protecting the country’s digital infrastructure and data is now as important as protecting national borders, he added. Turkey is working to build a strong and defensible infrastructure by developing its own cybersecurity technologies. It is the country’s goal to control technologies and defend sovereign rights in every area „from the blue homeland to cyberspace,“ the president explained. (Presidency of the Republic of Türkiye 2020)

References to the idea of digital sovereignty can clearly be found here, even if this has hardly been used as a term in the Turkish government’s publications to date. The question arises as to what will happen in Turkey in the coming years. Will institutions such as the Supreme Court continue to put a stop to what they see as an unlawful encroachment on the great good of freedom of expression? Will the Turkish government develop a national digital sovereignty strategy? And if so, what will it look like? Will it move closer to the Chinese model or the middle ground that the European Union is currently treading? Will Turkey also become active at the international level and promote a concept of national independence in cyberspace?

So far, Turkey is more committed to a multistakeholder model of cyber governance internationally, which is contrary to the ideals of the Chinese government. Further, the country shows openness to applying international law to cyberspace and supports international governance institutions. Turkey has already participated in some regional and international information and communication technology initiatives. (Eldem 2019)

In any case, it is worth watching these events and waiting to see whether the country should continue to be labeled only as a space of Internet censorship. So far, the press is still skeptical – but it remains to be seen what legal framework will come under President Erdoğan in the coming years, how criticism from outside will be dealt with, and whether the separation of powers and the rule of law in the country will do their part. On the list of the World Justice Project, which examines the state of the rule of law in 128 countries, Turkey came in 107th in 2020. (Karabat 2020) Turkey is also considered „not free“ on the Internet in a recent report by the organization „Freedom House“ and is listed as the European taillight in this context. (Jangiz 2021)

Reading recommendation: Wilson, Jeffrey und Hahn, Ashley. „Twitter and Turkey: Social Media Surveillance at the Intersection of Corporate Ethics and International Policy“ In: Journal of Information Policy(11), 2021, 444 – 477.


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