Turkey blocks Twitter as people use social media to share corruption evidence

This became the symbol of Turkey banning Twitter during protests.

Turkish officials have blocked access to Twitter, after people used the microblogging service to disseminate evidence of alleged corruption at the top of government.

The internet was already pretty restricted in Turkey before the passage of a law this past February, allowing local telecoms regulator TIB to demand the blockage of any website within 4 hours, without a court order. The law also requires ISPs to store web usage data for 2 years so authorities can go through it if they want.

According to AFP, it was only a matter of hours between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatening to “wipe out” Twitter in Turkey, and the blocks coming into force. On Friday, shortly after the blockade drew widespread condemnation, Turkish President Abdullah Gül said (via Twitter, ironically) that he doesn’t approve of blocking entire social media platforms. Turkey’s bar association has also filed a legal challenge.

“I don’t care”

“The international community can say this, can say that. I don’t care at all. Everyone will see how powerful the Republic of Turkey is,” Erdoğan told a rally on Thursday, according to Al Jazeera.

The first major reaction from the international community came from EU digital chief Neelie Kroes:

Meanwhile Twitter itself recommended that Turkish users circumvent the ban by falling back to the service’s original SMS-based mechanisms:

According to reports, Turkish people are also turning to Google’s DNS service to access Twitter — the government seems to have only instituted a DNS redirect, so that people trying to reach Twitter arrive at a government page instead, and bypassing the DNS resolution of Turkey’s ISPs should prove an effective measure.

ZenMate, a Berlin startup that provides a privacy protection extension for the Chrome browser, said on Friday morning that it had seen a huge spike in downloads from Turkey. Various other privacy outfits such as TunnelBear have also said they will help Turkish people bypass the blockade.

“We have seen 25,000 visitors from Turkey to the Chrome store in the last 12 hours,” ZenMate co-founder Simon Specka said in a statement. “We saw similar results following recent internet restrictions in Ukraine and Venezuela. Often this kind of spike is the first thing that alerts us to any issues in a region.”

Dodgy deals

While Twitter played a big part in the recent Gezi protests against Erdoğan and his administration, the reason for this blockage stems from an official graft inquiry that goes all the way to the top. The Turkish government imposed a media blackout on the investigation, which largely has to do with dodgy public tenders and construction projects, and damning evidence started regularly popping up through social media channels.

In February, a tape recording appeared on YouTube that appeared to show Erdoğan telling his son over the phone that he should hide large sums of cash from investigators. Erdoğan claimed this was a montage made from fragments of conversation recorded by political enemies hacking into his encrypted communications.

On Tuesday a recording was publicized through Twitter of a conversation between an Erdoğan adviser and a senior Turkish Airlines employee, appearing to refer to a conspiracy to send illegal arms shipments to Nigeria. Then came recordings of Erdoğan telling a newspaper editor to fire journalists who wrote critical pieces about him.

The final straw may have been Thursday’s leaked recording of Erdoğan chiding an official for selling valuable land without his permission, supposedly again indicating his over-involvement in major public projects. As with the editorial conversation, this recording was publicized by a Twitter user called Başçalan, or “prime thief.”

The Twitter ban comes in the run-up to municipal elections on March 30 – Erdoğan gave his fiery Thursday speech at an election rally. The prime minister has threatened to ban YouTube and Facebook too, after those elections.

This article was updated at 4.15am PT to note the Turkish president’s opposition to the move, and again at 4.30am PT to note the DNS workarounds that people are using.

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