Last week, terrorists from a Marxist gang in Turkey called the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party–Front took prosecutor Mehmet Selim Kiraz hostage in an Istanbul courthouse and shot him dead. In response to a widely-circulated photograph of Kiraz shortly before his death, the Turkish government banned social media giants Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.
A number of Turkish media organizations ran photos of the kidnappers menacing Kiraz with a gun, and it was no surprise to see these images rapidly spread across the Internet. This was distressing for the slain prosecutor’s wife and children and also for Turkish authorities, who regarded the photos as anti-government terrorist propaganda and demanded their removal.
The Turkish government brought the media to heel by temporarily blocking access to social media sites, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Hurriyet Daily News, which was one of 13 media organizations banned from the Kiraz funeral because it ran the forbidden photos, reports that a total of 166 websites were blocked under a ruling from Istanbul’s 1st Criminal Court of Peace, in response to demands from the Terror and Organized Crime Investigation Bureau of Istanbul’s Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office.
In essence, the court ordered Turkish Internet providers to block access to these sites until they knuckled under and removed the photos of Kiraz, which they eventually did. It sounds, from the Hurriyet report, as though the ban was implemented without informing the general public, as official confirmation was only given after “widespread complaints about access problems to the social media websites.”
Ironically, the social media ban lasted roughly the same amount of time as the hostage crisis in which Kiraz was killed: eight hours. “Tayfun Acarer, the head of the Information and Communications Technologies Authority (BTK), told daily Hürriyet that the ban on Facebook had been lifted after it rapidly complied with the court ruling on April 6,” reports Hurriyet Daily News.
Twitter complied later in the evening, followed by YouTube. The report notes that a hefty number of Turkish Twitter users were able to circumvent the government ban, pumping out 3 million tweets in the first two hours of the court-ordered blockage, many of them using a defiant #TwitterIsBlockedInTurkey hashtag. One of these subversive tweeters was former President Abdullah Gul.
Fox News quotes the Turkish Press Council’s unhappy response to the censorship: “It is meaningless to totally shut down social platforms – which contain billions of useful information – to the use of the Turkish people because of some unsuitable content.”
But it worked. The photos were pulled down. It is doubtless still possible for Turkish users to find them, but it takes considerable effort and technical knowledge now. The Internet is not quite the wild, untamed beast of our imagination. Authoritarians have enjoyed quite a bit of success at censoring content and blocking access to websites they don’t like. Ordinary users do not invest the effort necessary to circumvent government controls, or lack the expertise to do so, even if they are keenly interested in accessing banned material.
It might be dangerous for us to continue believing the Internet is more free, and more uncontrollable, than it really is. The giant companies which provide so much of our seemingly anarchic social media experience are not all that difficult to control.