Internet censorship in Turkey and staying secure online

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Turkey is a Middle Eastern country that has been vying for inclusion in the European Union since 1987. It is a relatively large country with a population of 79 million. It is a country that suffers from high levels of poverty and a low average income for those on a minimum wage of just $477 per month.

Political troubles in the country have led to a decline in tourism in recent years. Surveillance is prevalent and censorship is strong. In Turkey, only 65% of people have an active internet connection, and those that do suffer from an inability to gain access to important privacy tools.

Political overview

Turkey is a presidential republic in which the president is the head of state and the head of government. The president holds executive power and can issue executive decrees, appoint judges, and is the head of all state institutions.

The nation’s political landscape is categorized as a hybrid regime. It suffers from high levels of corruption, has a failed judicial system, and is a nation in which elections are regularly prevented from being fair and free.

The current leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is viewed as a quasi-dictator, especially due to his harsh treatment towards military officials, and civil society followed the failed military coup of 2016. 

Erdoğan is the head of the Development Party (AKP) which has been in power since 2002. During that time, Erdoğan’s government has grown incrementally more radical. This has led to an erosion of political rights and civil liberties within the country.

This includes harsh discrimination against minorities, a severe crackdown on freedom of speech, strong oppression of dissenting opinions – and a marked increase in political corruption – as well as impunity for police forces acting at the AKP’s behest.

Censorship

Erdoğan’s government has engaged in the arbitrary prosecution of human rights activists and other perceived enemies of the state. This includes the arrest and imprisonment of state employees, including military personnel, police officers, and members of civil society that are accused of having aided the failed military coup.

The independent media is very sparse, and those outlets that do exist are heavily censored by the government. Journalists are routinely targeted for prosecution using libel laws or the accusation of defaming the president. In 2017, 73 journalists were in prison according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. This makes Turkey the worst place to be a journalist in the world.

Mainstream media is completely controlled by the government and often carries identical headlines across its various outlets.

An Internet censorship law passed in 2007 allows the Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK) to block websites and online services. The government has begun blocking any news websites that criticize the Turkish government or president Erdoğan. Websites incompatible with local customs and beliefs are also blocked – this includes gambling, dating, and pornography websites.

The government also periodically blocks access to social media sites. During the attempted military coup, Facebook and Twitter suffered blocks in order to prevent people from mobilizing and organizing further unrest. 

In addition, encrypted messengers such as WhatsApp and Signal – as well as websites for privacy tools such as VPNs and Tor are also blocked in an attempt to stop people from communicating in private. 

It is thought that in total around 115,000 websites are blocked in Turkey. This includes websites belonging to religious minorities, such as pro-Kurdish content and blogs. In addition, any websites that criticize Islam or that are pro-atheist are blocked.

In March 2018, a new law was passed that allows the blocking of streaming services, including Netflix. This allows the government to pressure those streaming services to censor video content that it does not agree with.

Individuals in Turkey are not permitted to start their own website with a.tr URL ending. These are reserved for people who own a business.

Surveillance

Since the failed military coup in 2016, turkey has been under an official state of emergency that allows the government to impose new decrees. Many of these have allowed Erdoğan to pass laws to enforce heightened levels of surveillance in the name of national security.

That surveillance has been used to weed out over 50,000 people with alleged links to the coup – some of which were imprisoned for having criticized or defamed the president. Another 140,000 individuals were fired from their jobs for alleged links to the coup. Many of these people were arrested simply for having used the app ByLock, an encrypted messenger that was allegedly used by supporters of the Gülen movement.

Turkey is also among the list of nations who are said to have purchased elite hacking tools from the Italian firm Hacking Team. Those tools allow the government to intercept messages and take control over victims' machines in order to install keyloggers or take over the camera or microphones.

In addition, the government enforces bulk retention programs that force ISPs, tech firms, and telecoms firms to retain citizens' data on file. In addition, all public WiFi hotspots must maintain all connection logs for everybody that connects.

Any company served an information request must be ready to act on a request within two hours of a request being filed, or they can face large fines. According to official figures around 70,000 social media were under surveillance in 2017.

The anonymous purchase of mobile phones is not allowed and regulations force people to register phones they import from abroad. This limits people’s ability to communicate online privately and anonymously.

Turkey joined the Berne Convention in 1951, which means that it agrees to impose international copyright rules. Despite this, there is little evidence of people getting into trouble with the law for torrenting.

In order to stop people accessing torrents, the Pirate Bay is restricted by ISPs and the government has begun forcing ISPs to give BitTorrent users a warning. If consumers fail to heed that warning – their internet is slowed down for six months using bandwidth throttling.

For this reason, citizens in Turkey must use a VPN to access repositories. Unfortunately, this is tricky because ISPs also block VPNs and using a VPN to unblock content is illegal and can get users in trouble if they are discovered. For this reason, it is important to only use a high-quality VPN with strong privacy features such as a kill-switch and obfuscation.

Written by: Ray Walsh

Digital privacy expert with 5 years experience testing and reviewing VPNs. He's been quoted in The Express, The Times, The Washington Post, The Register, CNET & many more. 

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