Thursday, April 16, 2015

Until the Vicious Circle Broken

Turkey is a country where there are 40 million social media accounts and people are very eager to adopt technological advancements. Frankly speaking I don’t want to talk about my country’s absurd implementations in terms of social media. But Twitter’s latest transparency report left me no choice. According to the report, with 477 removal request (wih a 50% compliance) in the months between July and December 2014 “Turkey was the country that made the most content removal requests” through government agencies, the police or court orders. According to the numbers published by Twitter this week Turkish government’s 356 account information (with a 0% compliance) requests are only exceeded by the US-government. In the second half of 2014 an amount of 1820 tweets have been withheld by Turkish authorities or court.
Binnaz Saktanber summarizes the situation for us: "Last year, the Turkish government banned Twitter and YouTube while tech-savvy citizens never actually stopped tweeting, and mocked the blocks by circumventing it almost immediately thanks to VPN services and changing their DNS numbers. Turkey’s Constitutional Court lifted the ban, stating they violated laws on freedom of expression. The government must have felt the same, since it soon began to employ a different tactic to keep social media giants like Twitter and Facebook on a short leash without actually having to block them: threatening them with banning their service altogether and imposing heavy fines, bombarding them with court orders, and making them block specific content and accounts, keeping a façade of freedom.
The worst part is that Twitter seems to be helping it by implementing its “country-withheld content” policy. First employed in 2012 to block neo-Nazi accounts in Germany, the policy complies with the concerned country’s local laws and blocks a tweet or an account only in that country when faced with a legal order. This is understandable in cases of hate speech or criminal offenses, but the policy becomes awfully problematic when it interferes with freedom of expression and is applied according to local laws that are designed to censor freedom of expression at all costs, such as Turkey’s internet law. Facebook also complies with the Turkish government’s requests to block and censor political content.
In the report, Twitter has defended the policy, releasing the following statement: We filed legal objections with Turkish courts in response to more than 70% of Turkish orders received. Objections were filed where we believed the order interfered with freedom of expression laws or had other deficiencies. Our objections to Turkish courts prevailed only ~5% of the time. We un-withheld three accounts and 196 tweets following the acceptance of several objections that Twitter filed in the Turkish courts in response to various removal demands.
 The New York Times reported that “networks like Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus complied with the court order on Wednesday, removing content from accounts to avert a shutdown.” No need for big threats for Facebook, as the company already frequently allows the government to censor content. According to the company’s latest and second ever transparency report, Turkey is the second most frequent censor of the social network, after India. Turkey restricted 1.813 pieces of content between January and June 2014. This type of “cease and censor” regime helps the government keep a façade of freedom and avoids Turkey being boiled in the same pot as internet enemies like Iran and China while censoring political content all the same. Less international criticism, less local protest, easy targets. We might argue that this is not that big of a deal compared to last March, when Twitter and YouTube were blocked entirely. People are so tech-savvy they can bypass the censorship easily. Encryption software, VPNs, changing the DNS settings, changing your country settings in Twitter: all easy enough remedies that people are well versed in. We might say that Twitter’s “country-withheld policy” has good intentions. At least one can see a censored tweet in another country, or by changing the country settings. Yet, the danger in that mentality is that Twitter is actually making it less evident that censorship has occurred, thus becoming an accomplice in censoring governments whether they want it or not. Until Twitter and Facebook become censorship-free, users are forced to cope with the situation.
 Yet the responsibility to protect the freedom of expression should not rest on the shoulders of ordinary people and should not be reduced to technical gimmicks. There is no guarantee that the government will not find a way to block these technologies or pass further bills restricting internet freedom. Maybe it’s time Twitter and Facebook start being more courageous in terms of human rights and basic principles of free speech, instead of succumbing to the censorious antics of governments. This is what we expect of them."

Binnaz Saktanber is a Fulbright scholar and a PhD candidate at the City University of New York. Her research revolves around the interaction between social media, politics and social movements.

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