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Facebook blocks content deemed insulting to Islam in Turkey

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack, block spurs fears Turkish censorship could expand across Facebook

Facebook has blocked Turkish users from accessing an unspecified number of pages deemed insulting to the Prophet Muhammad in response to a court order from the Turkish government that threatened to shut down access to the social networking site if it did not comply, a source familiar with the matter told Al Jazeera. The censorship threat is just the latest move in what free speech advocates say is an alarming, and escalating, crackdown on expression in Turkey.

Turkey’s Penal Court of Peace in the capital, Ankara, issued an order late on Sunday demanding that Facebook block some number of pages from the country’s more than 30 million users, though it did not disclose which pages it wanted blocked. Facebook acted on what the source told Al Jazeera was a “valid legal request” and acquiesced within 24 hours, blocking at least one page.

Facebook did not provide any information about the request or the block on the record.

Coming on the heels of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, which has spawned a global debate over blasphemy and censorship, the incident has fueled fears among Turkish Internet freedom activists that the blocking of content deemed offensive to Islam — a step called for by Turkish law — could be a stepping-stone to the type of crackdown already underway in traditional media. For two of the past three years, Turkey has detained more journalists than any other country in the world, primarily targeting critics of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“Social media was the last venue to be relatively uncontrolled, and blasphemy is a good opportunity to test the waters,” said Erkan Saka, a blogger and professor of communications at Istanbul’s Bilgi University.

After the attack on Charlie Hebdo, a satirical weekly, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a post to his personal page on Jan. 9 that he would not let extremists silence “voices and opinions” over his network. “Facebook has always been a place where people across the world share their views and ideas. We follow the laws in each country, but we never let one country or group of people dictate what people can share across the world,” Zuckerberg wrote.

But as this week's controversy demonstrates, that isn’t always possible in a country like Turkey, where the leadership is not shy about blocking entire social networks to silence the “voices and opinions” that it finds troublesome. In March, the Turkish government temporarily blocked Twitter and YouTube because they were being used to circulate audio recordings that seemed to implicate members of Erdogan’s inner circle in corruption.

Companies like Facebook must strike a delicate balance between maintaining their reputations as safe spaces for self-expression and avoiding the losses in ad revenue that would result if a major country like Turkey were to cut off access to its 74 million people.

Facebook has a reputation for being more cooperative with local governments than many of its competitors, implementing a policy of restricting access to content that violates local laws — including culturally specific offenses such as Holocaust denial in Germany or the defamation of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey.

Experts note that Facebook's geo-blocking can be easily circumvented with software or the use of virtual private networks. Still, activists for freedom of expression say the company is not transparent enough about its policy. In some cases, they have argued that Facebook risks toeing the line of complicity in crackdowns by oppressive governments.

According to Facebook’s self-reported data on government block requests, the company blocked 1,893 pieces of content from Turkish users between January and June 2014 — the latest period for which data is available. Ankara presents the second-highest number of requests by any government in the world.

Saka emphasized that this creeping censorship of social media could not be isolated from the wider media crackdown, which has taken on a religious dimension since the Paris terror attacks. Earlier this month, Turkey launched an investigation into the daily newspaper Cumhurriyet and several of its staff after it published a four-page pull-out section of translated Charlie Hebdo cartoons, including ones that are considered deeply offensive by many Muslims because they depict the Prophet Muhammad.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has said that such “insults to our Prophet” will not be tolerated, and even made an appearance at massive protest in the city of Diyarbakir against Charlie Hebdo’s work.

Ironically, Facebook's cooperative approach to local laws has made it one of the most reliable forums for expression in Turkey because, until now, it has managed to stave off the threats of sitewide censorship levied at its competitors. “The government has been more hesitant to threaten Facebook because it’s become a household icon,” Saka said. “Nearly everyone uses it. But I guess now they feel they have enough power.”

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