Turkey’s Information and Communication Technologies Authority [BTK], an agency overseeing mass media, confronted Google about the presence of a map detailing the borders of “Kurdistan” including Turkish territory, reports revealed on Tuesday.
“Kurdistan” is a term broadly used for the indigenous territory of ethnic Kurds, believed to number between 25 and 35 million people. It includes land belonging to Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. All four governments vehemently reject Kurdish sovereignty. Turkey, in particular, has launched a crackdown on Kurdish separatist groups and legal Kurd-friendly political parties, deeming anyone expressing solidarity with the Kurdish people a “terrorist.”
The Turkish government now appears to have refocused its efforts on pressuring international corporations to accept its worldview, following a template the communist government of China has successfully used to impose its sovereignty claims on Taiwan, Tibet, and much of the South China Sea on American businesses.
“[BTK] officials talked to the platform’s [Google] representatives for the urgent removal of the map as part of their liabilities over national and international statutes,” Transport and Infrastructure Minister Cahit Turan said in a December 24 statement responding to concerns from Turkish legislators of the existence of the map on Google Earth, who deemed it “terrorist propaganda.” “We are following the developments and maintaining our contacts,” he added, without specifying whether Google was receptive to the request.
The Kurdish news agency Rudaw reports that the offending map “appears to be one created by a user on Google’s My Maps service, not the company itself” and “has so far been seen by more than 1.7 million users around the world.” The image of the offending map in Turkish and Kurdish media shows it spanning across the four countries where Kurdish populations are indigenous and reading, “Kurdistan is a geo-cultural region wherein the Kurds have historically formed a prominent majority population.”
At press time, typing “Kurdistan” into Google’s Maps feature online directs the user to the territory governed by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq, a legal autonomous entity within Iraq that does not include Kurdish land in neighboring countries. The Turkish government has historically maintained friendly relations with the KRG, who have opposed Kurdish separatist groups, with the exception of Turkey’s rejection of the KRG holding a non-binding referendum on independence in 2017.
Rudaw notes that the Turkish government, under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, made it illegal to refer to “Kurdistan” in July 2017 and has sanctioned pro-Kurdish legislators for using the word.
Turkey’s attempts to pressure Google to censor its content in accordance with the wishes of the Erdogan administration appear to be an escalation of similar online censorship the government has pursued. Long before the failed coup against Erdogan in 2016, Turkish authorities began attempting to silence criticism on the social network Twitter. At the time, however, Turkey focused on limiting access to the platform, not reaching out to Twitter directly and ordering them to edit their content.
The latter move appears more in line with the use of “sharp power” to manipulate corporate behavior spearheaded by the Communist Party of China, which has threatened to block American corporations from its mammoth market share if they behave in ways unsatisfactory to the regime. China has attempted to take revenge on American companies for slights such as not showcasing Taiwan on a map of China (Taiwan is a sovereign state that Beijing considers a rogue province); listing Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau as separate destinations from “China” on internet drop-down menus, and actively supporting Tibetan anti-communist movements.
In one of its most prominent uses of “sharp power” to censor a corporation, the Chinese government forced Marriott International to fire a social media manager for using the company’s Twitter account to “like” a tweet by the account “Friends of Tibet,” which had thanked Marriott at the time for identifying Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau as separate from China.
Turkey’s message to Google is the first high-profile attempt at this kind of persuasion. Turkey has nonetheless attempted to use international institutions to advance its domestic agenda, including in one instance flooding Interpol with thousands of demands for “red alerts,” notices that indicate to Interpol member nations they should arrest an individual, for people Ankara claimed were tied to Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen. Erdogan has insisted that Gulen organized the failed coup against him in 2016, although American officials claim Turkey has failed to provide evidence. Gulen lives in Pennsylvania.
The Gulen Interpol alerts prompted reports that Interpol had kicked Turkey out of its user interface that allows countries to upload potential criminal profiles, a claim Interpol denied while also noting they had rejected many Turkish requests for red alerts.