Welcome to Source Notes, a Future Tense column about the internet’s knowledge ecosystem.
On Jan. 15, the Turkish people were once again able to access and edit Wikipedia, ending a 2½-year period of suspension. The end of the block followed a Dec. 26 decision by the Constitutional Court of Turkey that the block was unconstitutional.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government blocked Wikipedia in 2017, citing a law allowing it to ban access to websites that had been deemed obscene or a threat to national security. As Omer Benjakob reported for Haaretz, Turkish officials had previously contacted the Wikimedia Foundation in the United States to request that content on articles such as “State-sponsored terrorism” and “Foreign involvement in the Syrian Civil War” be removed. The foundation, however, refused the request because the encyclopedia’s content is determined by the global community of Wikipedia contributors, not the organization itself. Turkey’s response was to block Wikipedia entirely, with one official account tweeting, “Since Wikipedia broadcasts in HTTPS protocol, it is technically impossible to filter by individual URL’s to block only relevant content. Therefore, entire Wikipedia content had to be filtered.”
When Wikipedia was restored in Turkey, Wikipedians celebrated with the hashtag #WelcomeBackTurkey. More than 80 million Turkish citizens now had access to the encyclopedia—the triumphant result of a hard-fought legal battle and a spirited public relations campaign. At the same time, it’s sobering because the strategies employed for Turkey seem unlikely to be effective in other countries where Wikipedia has been censored.
Prior to access being restored, Turkey was one of only two countries that had blocked the site in all languages for a prolonged period. China blocked the Chinese-language version of the site in June 2015. Then, in May 2019, in a move that appeared to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, it instituted a full block of the encyclopedia in all language versions.
Years ago, it was common for governments to censor specific Wikipedia articles without blocking the entire encyclopedia. For example, Iran, as of 2013, had blocked 963 encyclopedia entries that were deemed offensive to the government, and Saudi Arabia and Pakistan also instituted partial blocks. But Wikipedia’s shift to HTTPS encryption in 2015 prevented countries from selectively censoring specific articles.
Faced with this all-or-nothing option, most countries have given up on Wikipedia censorship, except during troubled times. For instance, Venezuelan state telecommunications company CANTV blocked all language editions of Wikipedia for seven days in January 2019 following a contested presidential election, cutting off 1.5 million subscribers to the nation’s largest internet provider.
Stephen LaPorte, legal director for the Wikimedia Foundation, told me that the legal strategy employed to fight censorship of Wikipedia can vary by country. In the case of Turkey, the foundation filed a petition within days of the 2017 block, arguing that it violated the right to free expression under the country’s constitution. The brief also cited Turkish legal precedent, including a 2014 case suspending a temporary block of Twitter. Despite this precedent, a court in Ankara ruled against Wikimedia. The foundation filed a series of appeals, going all the way up to the Turkish constitutional court, where it sat for about two years.
In April 2019, the foundation lodged an application with the European Court of Human Rights. The foundation’s petition argued that the block limited the fundamental rights to free expression and access to knowledge, which Turkey was obliged to respect as a signatory to the European Convention of Human Rights. The court granted the case “priority treatment” as an urgent matter related to government censorship. The Constitutional Court of Turkey’s decision came within six months of the ECHR’s decision to fast-track the case.
Put simply, the legal strategy to fight the Wikipedia block in Turkey included an appeal to the country’s own constitutional principles, with additional pressure via the indirect power of international law. “These are well-established principles in international law, and they had been protected by the Turkish constitutional court in previous cases,” LaPorte said. “Since it was something the court had protected previously, we had hoped that they would protect this fundamental right more quickly.”
The two-year delay is discouraging, yes. But the strategy wouldn’t have worked at all in other countries with internet censorship. Although Venezuela has a written constitution, in practice the government’s power is concentrated in the executive branch. China certainly does not guarantee a right to free expression online or otherwise, and the legal options there are limited. And both countries are famously resistant to perceived international interference in their sovereignty. So while Turkey accepts Europe’s jurisdiction at some level—or wants to signal to Europe that it has functioning institutions—these other countries are not similarly motivated.
When the “take ’em to court” strategy seems unworkable, some turn to social media to protest Wikipedia censorship. Throughout the two-year Turkey block, the Wikimedia Foundation promoted a public relations campaign via the hashtag #WeMissTurkey. More than 200,000 people responded to the campaign on social media, and Turkish artists created posters visualizing the knowledge the world was missing due to the block. “#WeMissTurkey was a great morale boost for the Turkish community,” said Firat Ozak, a volunteer administrator of Turkish Wikipedia. “We were especially moved by the support from Wikipedians in the central and Eastern Europe region.”
Several Wikipedia editors told me that they thought it important to express support and solidarity in the battle against Turkey’s block of the site. Indonesian Wikipedia editor Ramzy Muliawan said, “In countries that lack due process of law, you need a combination of lawyering and public policy lobbying.”
But contributors who live within the censored countries noted that these public relations campaigns can be tricky. A spokesperson for Wikimedia Venezuela told me about the strategic considerations when the country blocked Wikipedia last year. For instance, Wikimedia Venezuela asked the foundation not to issue a statement condemning the blockage because the nonprofit organization is based in San Francisco in the United States. The foundation heeded the warning from the local chapter. Instead, Wikimedia Venezuela released its own statement decrying the block. If the block had persisted longer than a week, there were tentative plans to put a banner on Spanish-language Wikipedia to raise further awareness, the spokesperson said; instead of the occasional banner requests to donate to the site for the price of a cup of coffee, the Spanish Wikipedia banner would explain how Venezuelans were being denied access. The Wikimedia Venezuela spokesperson said that the group thought this approach would be more effective because Venezuela is very sensitive about how it is perceived by other South American countries.
Although the total block of Venezuela lasted only one week, editing Wikipedia in Venezuela remains precarious. The Wikimedia Venezuela spokesperson estimated that about 75 percent of the volunteer community has fled the country in recent years due to the political crisis, leaving the country with fewer than a dozen core contributors. Venezuelan editors had been doxed, maligned on blogs, and accused of working for foreign governments—all for volunteering information to the site in their free time.
Still, the spokesperson for Wikimedia Venezuela said that the remaining editors are highly motivated to add information to the encyclopedia, which often functions as a credible up-to-date newspaper. For example, the Spanish article listing political prisoners in Venezuela includes information that would not be covered by the state-run TV and radio companies. “If you need to know something that’s happening right now in Venezuela, you need to go to the internet,” the Wikimedia Venezuela representative said.
But the spokesperson advised taking safety precautions before going online to access accurate info in these censored regimes, including the use of virtual private networks to preserve anonymity. VPNs are commonplace in countries with high internet censorship. For instance, as the New York Times has reported, more than 45 percent of Turks accessing the internet used a VPN in 2017, according to GlobalWebIndex.
VPN users are typically able to bypass the country’s block to read Wikipedia. But Wikipedia largely prohibits the IP addresses of VPNs from editing the encyclopedia’s content. The rule is intended to prevent vandalism to the site. For example, if a Russian troll edited Wikipedia to spread disinformation, an administrator could block that user’s IP address from editing. The Russian troll might be able to bypass the block by using a VPN to make it appear that their IP address originates elsewhere in the world—except that the community has blocked the IP addresses of most VPNs for precisely this reason.
Wikipedia’s VPN policy creates an interesting paradox: During the time that Wikipedia was blocked in Turkey, Turks could bypass the block by using a VPN, which would allow them to read Wikipedia. But since Turkish citizens couldn’t edit the site due to the VPN policy, that means most of the content on Turkish Wikipedia was being written by people living in other countries. As one editor told me, Turkish Wikipedia has been maintained for the past two years primarily by the community of “diaspora Turks.”
Users can request an IP block exemption that would allow them to edit using a VPN. These exemptions are helpful from a safety perspective. An Egyptian editor told me that they benefited from their VPN exemption, which helps because, even though Egypt doesn’t block Wikipedia, the government monitors internet activity.
Yet Wikipedians told me the process to request an exemption was overly complex. First, the request form itself is a bit difficult to find. And the community members who decide on exemptions often look at the edit history of the users requesting the block to decide whether they are a safe pick to allow for an exemption. This leads to a Catch-22: The safety of an exemption tends to go to so-called power users of Wikipedia, but you don’t become a power user in a censored regime without first subjecting yourself to a few months’ personal risk to build the credibility of an edit history.
Then again, there is no guarantee that users who receive VPN exemptions are independent-minded. As reported by Wired UK, Wikipedia editors in Hong Kong saw an influx last year of mainland Chinese editors using VPNs to edit Chinese Wikipedia to state that Hong Kong was governed by Beijing. But Hong Kong Wikipedians questioned the credibility of these mainlanders, who seemed to overwhelmingly add content supporting the position of the central Chinese government.
Multiple editors told me that Wikipedia should amplify its message about block exemptions in countries where the internet faces government censorship. Ozak said that during the Turkish blackout, the local Wikipedia community was actually quite willing to provide IP ban exemptions to users, even if they had limited edit histories. The problem was that new users simply didn’t know that they could ask for them.
Although Turkey’s Constitutional Court issued its ruling against the block, the European Court of Human Rights’ decision has not yet been released. Court observers expect the ECHR to rule not only on the human rights issues posed by the Turkish law but also on how long it took the judicial process to approve it. Some might say it doesn’t matter how the EHCR rules because Turkish courts have already decided the matter. But the ECHR has an opportunity here to make the broader point that internet blocking is unacceptable in any democratic society.
Meanwhile, the global Wikimedia movement is currently reviewing its policies around VPN editing as part of its 2030 strategic vision, including options to make it safer to contribute anonymously in countries where the internet is censored and monitored. In some ways, though, the VPN “workaround” seems like a case study in crafting a technical solution because political institutions have failed. Overall, the story of #WelcomeBackTurkey reminds us that a well-functioning judiciary wouldn’t need to be bypassed with technology; it would protect and restore these fundamental rights, as is said, with all deliberate speed.