Turkey’s Internet Policy after the Coup Attempt: The Emergence of a Distributed Network of Online Suppression and Surveillance

Bilge Yesil, Efe Kerem Sozeri

In the early 1990s, the internet in Turkey was in the purview of academic and research institutions and had not yet become a commercial medium available to the masses. Today, 61% of the population (approximately 49 million) is online, and the government is heavily investing in fiber optic infrastructure to attract foreign capital to the country’s growing telecom sector. However, in parallel with the expansion of the digital communications network and the steady growth in overall usage, governmental policies have become increasingly restrictive over the years. In this report, Bilge Yesil and Efe Kerem Sözeri (with assistance from Emad Khazraee in data collection) examine the evolution of internet policy in Turkey from the early 2000s to the present time, analyze the emergence of new forms of internet regulation in a precarious democracy marked by authoritarian impulses, and reveal the fragility of the so-called links between the increase in digital communications and the creation of a pluralistic online sphere.

The report begins with an overview of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) government’s regulatory measures, and discusses its initiatives that aim to confine the networked public sphere in response to political crises and the potentially disruptive affordances of social media platforms. Following this overview, the report focuses on the emerging policy developments and online restrictions in the aftermath of the 2016 coup attempt that triggered the expansion of an online surveillance-censorship-control regime.

Between the early 1990s and mid-2000s, internet regulation was largely left to the courts, which prosecuted individual users in a somewhat random fashion, generally penalizing them based on alleged crimes against national unity and identity. The next decade witnessed the passage of the first Internet Law in 2007 that was largely propelled by online child pornography concerns, and the construction of legal and technical infrastructures that enabled administrative entities and courts to block so-called harmful content, create default filters, and ban tens of thousands of websites.

The year 2013 marks a turning point regarding the AKP government’s internet policy. During the Gezi Park protests and the corruption scandal, the AKP government became acutely aware of the role of social media in organizing protests, mobilizing activists, and disseminating information to the masses. To crack down on such activities considered threatening to its rule and legitimacy, it introduced new limitations on online communications and privacy, such as the passing of stricter internet legislation, use of throttling and content removal, and surveillance and prosecution of social media users.

Online restrictions worsened considerably in the aftermath of the coup attempt. Under the declared state of emergency that has been in place since the summer of 2016, the AKP government has expanded its powers by passing decree laws, issuing gag orders, blocking websites, shutting down the internet in certain parts of the country, restricting VPN and cloud services, and enlisting partisan social media users to harass and intimidate oppositional voices.

Drawing on data gathered from analyses of Twitter activity before and after the abortive coup; Twitter, Facebook and Google transparency reports; Lumen database on Turkish court orders and traffic data on throttling, as well as interviews with internet activists and legal scholars, the report points to the emergence of a distributed and decentralized system of suppression, surveillance and intimidation that involves both government and non-government actors, and hard and soft forms of control. The authors note that the Turkish government’s use and abuse of its powers has heralded a perilous era for online freedoms of information, speech and privacy.

To read the full report, please click here.

Respective Roles: Towards an International Treaty for Internet Freedom?

While the idea to have a “Magna Carta” for the Internet, protecting online freedoms such as freedom of expression, online assembly, or privacy, isn’t new, the question remains on how the UN Internet Governance Forum (IGF) could adopt binding documents – and whether it should at all. This article offers food for thought on how all IGF stakeholders could collaborate in an attempt to develop an international legal framework without expanding the scope of the mandate of the IGF. Instead, this nascent idea makes use of existing structures involving a range of stakeholders, including the Dynamic Coalitions, the Freedom Online Coalition and the Council of Europe.

Internet Governance & International Treaties

At the Opening Session of the last IGF Meeting in November 2015 in Joao Pessao, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression David Kaye argued for an international treaty on human rights on the Internet. He said he saw a lack of legal certainty -substantive, jurisdictional, and procedural- that allows many around the world to perceive gaps in the application of human rights law online. He stressed that Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) guarantees the right to freedom of expression regardless of frontiers as a transboundary right. Kaye stated, “It is a challenge to traditional notions of Government control of territorial space, but it is a provision to be celebrated and put at the very center of Internet Governance.”

Joe Cannataci, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy, said that there was a need to improve existing legal instruments: “In international law, justiceable agreements are those that are included in conventions, legally binding international treaties. Thus, if Internet Governance is to be obtained, it must be treaty based.”

“Ultimately, nothing can substitute international agreement between governments acting on the advice and in the spirit of multistakeholder agreements”, Cannataci added.

Other participants, however, especially among civil society, voiced reservations that an international treaty would endanger a free Internet rather than provide for its protection, especially if such a treaty is ratified by governments that engage in mass surveillance, implement overreaching copyright laws, have poor privacy protection, limit access to an open Internet, or violate other human rights in their jurisdiction.

The multi-stakeholder model of internet governance at “worst may be a front for corporate self-regulation or government policy whitewashing”, warns for example Jeremy Malcolm of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

And indeed, countries such as China or Russia and many from the Middle East are openly in favor for more government control in Internet governance, lobbying for multilateral or intergovernmental arrangements, where states are the primary actors, administered by the ITU. In a Joint Communiqué dating from April 2016, the Foreign Ministers of the Russian Federation, the Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China emphasized “the need to internationalize Internet governance and to enhance in this regard the role of International Telecommunication Union”.

So, with these debates as a backdrop, how could a human rights-centered and multi stakeholder-based international treaty on basic human rights on the Internet be formed and what would it look like?…

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