— Nurşen Fidan ☭ (@nursenfidan) April 6, 2015
On Monday, a spokesman for the Turkish president told the Associated Press that a prosecutor had ordered Internet providers to block a number of social networking Web sites. Meanwhile, sources in the telecom industry told Reuters that access to YouTube and Twitter already appeared to be blocked. [Update: Reuters later reported that the block on Twitter had been lifted]
Exactly which Web sites were blocked and which were not remains unclear (one report suggests that authorities had sought to block 166 Web sites in total), but what is clear is that the Turkish government's war on the Internet is back. And, again, that war may be proving ineffectual.
This time, the spark for Turkey's Internet blocks appears to be a dramatic hostage crisis that played out in Istanbul last week. In that incident, Mehmet Selim Kiraz, the lead prosecutor in an investigation into the death of Turkish teenager Berkin Elvan, was held hostage in a courtroom by gunmen said to be from the far-left Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C). Police stormed the offices, but Kiraz was shot and later died in a hospital.
Some Turkish media organizations suggested that the government had tried to impose a media blackout during the hostage crisis. However, images and videos of Kiraz held at gunpoint soon spread across social media. They were picked up by international news organizations, including The Washington Post, and remain widely available online.
Monday's social media block marks the second such ban in just over a year for Turkey. In March 2014, the government briefly blocked Twitter and YouTube. In that case, the ban proved ineffective: Astute social media users were able to access the social networks by using a virtual private network (VPN) or changing their domain name system (DNS) settings. In fact, some services monitoring the use of Twitter in Turkey during its ban last year reported no notable drops.
This time the ban may well have a similar lack of effect. On Monday, Twitter showed that #TwitterisblockedinTurkey is one of the most popular hashtags in Turkey, with more than 45,000 tweets in the past 24 hours. Many of the messages on the hashtag appeared to mock the ineffectual ban.
— Ali TKMK (@Alitkmk_) April 6, 2015
— ... (@zekituncay) April 6, 2015
— Emrah★ (@PartizanChe) April 6, 2015
— tugce gul baran (@Arsipeli) April 6, 2015
Some critics have noted that if the ban is aimed at preventing the spread of images of Kiraz being held hostage, it may simply have come too late. Even if the photos showing him at gunpoint are upsetting, they first began circulating on March 31. Now, seven days later, it seems unlikely that anyone who wants to see them hasn't already.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long had a troubled relationship with the Internet. As far back as 2007, the blogging platform WordPress was facing bans in Turkey (many Internet users found it blocked again last week), and Erdogan has made several comments disparaging the use of social media ("Twitter, mwitter!" he reportedly told supporters at a rally last year).
Many observers see the Internet crackdowns as politically motivated: Last year's bans came just before important municipal elections and after a number of damaging anonymous leaks and allegations, mostly relating to corruption in Erdogan's governing AKP party, were spread on Twitter and YouTube. Notably, a number of Internet users have been investigated over the past year on charges of insulting public officials on social media accounts.