Turkey: Twitter blackout underlines Erdogan’s growing isolation

Analysis: President Gül's criticism of the shutdown leaves prime minister without support

A protest against Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on Friday, after the government blocked access to Twitter.
Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images

Access to Twitter from Turkey was blocked late Thursday, a decision made by courts but strongly promoted earlier in the day by Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. President Abdullah Gül, however, denounced the move Friday, leaving Erdogan, already embroiled in a controversy over alleged corruption implicating him and his inner circle, further isolated.

Those trying to go on the website were met with a note from the Presidency of Telecommunication and Communication (TIB) explaining that the page had been blocked "due to an ongoing precautionary measure.”

The decision has been based on orders from three separate courts. In a statement, TIB said the courts ruled to block access after a number of citizens claimed their identity rights and privacy were violated on Twitter.

“These decisions have been referred to us [TIB] and we have asked Twitter to remove said content. However, despite our best efforts, Twitter has remained indifferent to these rulings. That is why, in order to prevent irretrievable grievances, we have had no choice but to block access to Twitter.”

Twitter reportedly responded Friday, saying it stood by users in Turkey and hoped to have full access returned soon.

Earlier on Thursday, Erdogan had mentioned the court rulings during one of his election rallies and said, “Twitter-schmitter, we will wipe all of them out. I do not care what the international community would say. This has nothing to do with freedom. Freedom is not encroaching on somebody’s privacy. We will not let this happen.”

The block, however, did not prove to be effective. Immediately following the initial reports of people not being able to access the website, social media users in Turkey started to share manuals and tips on how to get around the issue. Given the prevalence of blocked websites — including pornographic content, many pro-PKK Kurdish websites and others, including YouTube for a few years — Turkish Internet users are no strangers to changing domain name system settings and connecting through VPNs, tricking the network into thinking the user is accessing websites from outside Turkey.

Many users noted the increased traffic on their timelines and commented that the block actually seemed to be drawing more users to the website. According to the social analytics site Topsy, the hashtag #twittersblockedinturkey has been tweeted over half a million times since the news broke. 

It is one of the inside jokes of Turkish Twitter users to retweet President Gül’s old tweets. This time Turks turned to a tweet Gül sent out in March 2011, at the height of the Arab Spring, which said: “Given the power communications technologies have reached today, no closed regime can survive in the long run.” 

The president returned to Twitter on March 21 to break a monthlong silence. In a series of tweets, Gül said: “It is unacceptable for social media sites to be shut down completely. Also, as I have noted before, it is not technically possible to completely block access to websites like Twitter, which are used the world over. If there is a case of a privacy breach, court orders could shut down the relevant pages only. I hope this will not last long.”

This is not the first time Gül and Erdogan have differed on the issue of Internet freedom. Two weeks ago, Erdogan had said on a news show that he would shut down Facebook and YouTube completely if necessary, in order to combat the distribution of illegally obtained audio recordings purporting to implicate himself and his family and inner circle in corruption. An uproar followed, which Gül sought to soothe by saying: “It wouldn’t be right to block these when we want freedoms to become stronger, no one in Turkey misses such a thing. Platforms like Facebook and YouTube are used everywhere in the world. There is no way they can be shut down.” 

Although the difference in tone between the president and the prime minister — longtime friends and political allies — is nothing new in Turkey, this most recent act leaves Erdogan’s ruling AKP party virtually alone, with no former or current ally defending the move. Internet penetration and social media usage are very high in Turkey, including in the AKP’s own voter base. Local elections, largely interpreted as a vote of confidence for Erdogan and his government, take place in only nine days, and in many countries blocking Twitter would be considered a bad pre-election move. Erdogan does not seem to believe so; we will find out if he was right on March 30.

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