Late Saturday night, when I saw the tweet from Twitter’s Global Affairs account announcing it had complied with a government request to restrict access to content in Turkey on the eve of our country’s presidential elections, I felt a deep sense of Here we go again. I’m pretty familiar with the government’s attempt to limit Twitter accounts and tweets for political reasons—I research freedom of expression and internet freedom, and my own tweets have been blocked or limited by four different court decisions so far. I’ve been part of three Turkish Constitutional Court cases that successfully overturned government decisions blocking access to Twitter, YouTube, and Wikipedia, and I also successfully challenged the Turkish government at the European Court of Human Rights for blocking access to YouTube between 2008 and 2010. I’m currently part of more than 20 pending Constitutional Court applications, four of which involve blocking access to my tweets. (Those blocked tweets, ironically, were primarily discussing decisions to block other tweets or news websites.)
After seeing Saturday’s announcement, my first reaction was to check whether Elon Musk had anything to say about the decision—and of course, he did. Twitter’s logic, he explained, was that the choice was to “have Twitter throttled in its entirety or limit access to some tweets”—and they chose, in their justification, the lesser of the two evils. Twitter had already experienced throttling from Turkish authorities in the past few months, first after a terrorist attack in Istanbul in November and more recently after February’s devastating earthquakes, while the crucial rescue efforts were still ongoing.
In response to criticism, Musk promised that Twitter would share the requests sent by the Turkish authorities, and on Monday, the company shared some court orders and communication with authorities. This was sort of a half attempt to make good on Musk’s promise: The decisions, ranging from 2018 to 2023, were partially redacted, and Twitter did not explain the reasoning behind these decisions or how the websites, Twitter accounts, and tweets included in these decisions breached national security, created public disorder, or threatened the lives of others (which would be the appropriate legal standard in this case). Usually, the office of the president or the interior ministry requests these kinds of decisions, and the decisions usually target Kurdish and left-wing news websites, as well as social media accounts and content that are associated with journalists, activists, and opponents of the government. In the documents released Monday, there was also no explicit reference to the throttling threats in the communication sent by the Turkish authorities; the communications reminded Twitter that it had not complied with the five previous decisions and that the company had been previously warned to comply.
In its post on Monday, the day after the elections, Twitter said it had challenged these decisions in court, and that one such challenge had already been rejected. But the company did not give further details about the timeline or nature of the decisions. The urgency to act on decisions from 2018 and 2020 (two of the five decisions) hours before the elections remains dubious at the very least. If the appeals were rejected, Twitter could also lodge appeals with the Constitutional Court—which is what I would expect them to do, if they wanted to make good on their promise of protecting freedom of expression—but the company did not say whether it had already done so or planned to.
In the absence of such due process, restricting access to accounts and tweets is a dangerous game to play and sets a weak precedent for protecting freedom of expression on Twitter. The election is now going into a runoff, and it’s a safe bet that the government will continue to demand the sanctioning of accounts belonging to journalists, human rights activists, and others who oppose it. That’s the danger of respecting local laws by ignoring local context, regardless of how repressive that jurisdiction might be. Advocating for transparency and due process around the removal of content doesn’t necessarily mean always agreeing with that content or the people behind such accounts—it simply means recognizing that when the power to restrict content is in the hands of someone like Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, things can go south quickly. You can’t half-heartedly resist censorship: Social media platforms should do everything possible to fight such restrictions, rather than accept defeat when faced with threats of throttling.
I wish I could say all this was surprising. In reality, it fits neatly into a pattern of internet censorship in Turkey that risks becoming even more entrenched under Musk’s obedient leadership. The country’s history of digital censorship goes back to 2007 and includes some platforms being completely blocked: YouTube between 2018 and 2020, and also for two and a half months in 2014; Twitter in 2014; and Wikipedia between 2017 and 2019. Those platforms were only made accessible after challenges were lodged with the Constitutional Court and also with the European Court of Human Rights. There’s also a specific history when it comes to elections: When Twitter was blocked during crucial local elections in March 2014, I joined two other Twitter users to lodge successful appeals with our country’s Constitutional Court to overturn the ban. At that time, the authorities claimed that Twitter did not comply with four decisions that required the platform to block a number of tweets that had been judged defamatory and in violation of personal rights. While the courts had ruled only to block access to specific content, the telecom authority arbitrarily and unlawfully blocked access to the platform as a whole—which the Constitutional Court determined was a violation of users’ right to freedom of expression.
As of the end of 2022, access to 712,558 websites was blocked in Turkey. In addition to those websites, approximately 150,000 individual URL addresses, 9,800 Twitter accounts, 55,000 tweets, 16,500 YouTube videos, and 12,000 Facebook and 11,000 Instagram posts are blocked in the country, subject to the thousands of court orders issued on a yearly basis. In June 2022, access to both the Voice of America Turkish news website and the entire German news website Deutsche Welle were blocked, purportedly because they did not obtain a “broadcast license.” Both news websites currently remain blocked in Turkey while applications are pending at the Constitutional Court. Since last year, the website of the National Film Board of Canada has also been among the websites currently blocked from Turkey for purportedly breaching national security and public order.
This is all a part of an aggressive government strategy to systematically block access to political speech online, which becomes especially concerning when considered within the context of a general deterioration in freedom of expression and a crackdown on critical voices during Erdoğan’s regime.
In addition to blocking access and removing content, in 2020 Turkey demanded social media platforms establish a physical presence in the country. Companies are required to respond to requests made by users, enforce access-blocking and content removal decisions, store user data in Turkey, and provide transparency reports. Obediently, companies including Twitter, Meta, Google, and TikTok have established their Turkish offices, hoping that empty shell companies would legally cover them. But then, in October 2022, an amended law extended their obligations and tightened regulations—notably adding the requirement to provide user information to the judicial authorities in relation to certain crimes, including the newly introduced crime of disinformation. Noncompliance will result in sanctions such as throttling and fines. If companies do comply, they risk serving as the long arm of Turkish law enforcement agencies and thus becoming complicit in human rights violations. That will be the cost of “doing business” in Turkey, while the sharp democratic backslide and deterioration of freedom of expression continue.
Prior to Musk’s takeover, it was clear that Twitter rejected the majority of the demands for content removal. My assessment of the Twitter transparency reports between 2012 and 2021 showed that Turkey demanded the blocking of 122,542 accounts, and Twitter only withheld 2,616 accounts (withheld content is geographically blocked within Turkey but not necessarily removed). Turkey tops the number of withheld accounts globally in the Twitter transparency reports. In second place, India complained about 78,382 accounts, and Twitter withheld 1,686 accounts. During the same period, 13,060 tweets were withheld subject to Turkish government requests (Twitter did not disclose the number of tweets the government requested be sanctioned).
Since Musk took over, it’s hard to know whether these numbers have changed, because Twitter stopped publishing biannual transparency reports and recently stopped sharing takedown notices with a transparency database dedicated to tracking such actions. Twitter before the Musk takeover generally refused to withhold content related to verified journalists and news outlets, or challenged such decisions. Based on my assessment, we are now witnessing a more obedient and government-friendly Twitter that is willing to withhold more accounts and tweets to comply with Turkish law. For example, data generated from court decisions that determined accounts or tweets should be blocked shows the total number of Twitter accounts and tweets with blocking orders was 46,812 at the end of 2019. The total number reached 71,733 on Oct. 26, 2022, the day before Musk took over Twitter. That number is now down for the first time to 69,254 as of the end of March. It is too soon to really speculate, but the decrease could indicate that more accounts and tweets have already been withheld in response to government demands.
Erdoğan is widely expected to win the runoff election on May 28, and his victory would continue the sharp democratic backslide that has played out over the past 10 years. His desire to control social media platforms is no secret; he continues to see them as one of the main threats to, in his framing, democracy—or in a more realistic framing, his authoritarian reign. If platforms choose to cooperate in Erdoğan’s mission to control what is being said online, they will be accused of becoming complicit in human rights violations in Turkey. How much they care remains to be seen.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.