By Chris Young
On Thursday, March 20, 2014, the Turkish government, through a court-order, announced that it would block local access to Twitter’s website.. The move came amidst a corruption scandal and nine days before local elections. The initial ban operated at the Domain Name System (“DNS”) level (A domain name may serve as a proxy for a given website’s Internet Protocol (“IP”) resource). Here, the Turkish government has decided that its citizens are not entitled to access a website that provides a communicative network for 200 million folks across the globe.
The following Saturday, March 22, the government acknowledged that regaining control of political expression may have been a possible motive, stating that Twitter has allowed “systematic character assassinations.” Worse yet in the government’s estimation, Twitter has allegedly failed to remove offensive content that the Turkish court order characterized as defamation. But some commentators have suggested that this is actually a clever move meant to signal to Twitter that if it means to do business in Turkey, it must establish a presence in-country, becoming more economically and legally accountable for misuse. The problem with this strategy is that the ban doesn’t seem to be effective.
At first, the rather unsophisticated DNS ban was easily bypassed; concerned citizens left instructions on how to circumvent the block as graffiti. But on March 22, the government blocked access to Twitter at the IP level; severing relevant servers. Notwithstanding this further step, alternative routes remain viable; e.g., SMS, VPN, or TOR. TOR, free software meant to provide users with online anonymity, could be particularly successful alternative. TOR runs Internet traffic through a series of relays; thus obscuring a user’s location and identity. In this manner, those affected by Turkey’s ban could anonymously access the Twitter website. This raises the timeless question: whether it be wise for those in power to enact unenforceable laws.
Turkey’s move opens the government to ridicule. The court-order is far too sweeping in proportion to the government’s aim. In the U.S. legal system, such a ban would almost certainly be struck down as an unlawful prior restraint or, in the alternative, as impermissibly overbroad. Perhaps because Twitter has zero contacts with Turkey, the government reasoned that it lacked the power to fine the company; instead, the government took the only action it considered effectual to force the company to remove its ”defamatory” language from its website: blocking access to the site. Of course, one person’s defamation is another person’s political expression. If the government’s real purpose in restricting expression is to invite Twitter to establish offices in Istanbul, then the government might be sending the social media company the wrong message.