Coping with national digital restrictions in Turkey

Growing up in The Netherlands we believe we know freedom very well. Freedom of expression, freedom of sexuality and so on. In Turkey, freedom of expression has been limited over the past 12 years. The Turkish government has been censoring porn websites and widely used platforms such as Wikipedia, Twitter and YouTube regularly in the country due to ‘insulting content’. But how exactly do young people grow up in the middle of the digital age and cope with these digital restrictions? We asked media and communication students at the Bilgi University in Istanbul about their experiences.

Text by Annelijn Oviawe and Samen Rehman

The internet censorship in Turkey started with the Internet Act of 2007. The Act allowed the AKP (The Justice and Development Party in Turkey) to censor all porn sites in the country under the guise of protecting family values and minors. After the Gezi protests in May 2013 against, among other things, the policies of Minister Erdoğan, social media platforms had proven to be effective in organising demonstrations and spreading news about the events. A YouTube ban in 2008 even lasted for two years after Greek users posted videos claiming that Atatürk, the first president of modern-day Turkey, was homosexual. Since 2013 a new form of internet censorship in Turkey was introduced: protecting important Turkish politicians from slander as a consequence of the public use of social media in the country. “This again demonstrates the power of the internet vis-à-vis mass media that is controlled directly or indirectly by the government.” (Internet Policy Review, 2015).

Credit: Unsplash

But no website is inaccessible for the Turkish citizens. Hard evidence is the following: even though all porn sites have been banned in turkey since 2007, the country ranked as eighth most porn searches in the world (Google, 2015). Additionally, according to a study done in 2012 by the Telecommunications Department (TIB) of the Turkish Parliament, 2 million online users watch pornographic films each minute in Turkey. But how is this possible?

VPN and Wikizeroo

Berat (21) is a student at the Bilgi University. He studies media and communications and works as a freelance journalist for an online platform called ‘My Country? Europe’. Just like all Turkish citizens he never had access to Wikipedia ever since 2017, when the country banned the website after a conflict. “As a journalist you want to have access to quick facts.” Berat explains. “I had to learn how to find my way around the ban through the internet. I started using a mirroring system for Wikipedia called ‘Wikizeroo’. You add zero’s to the Wikipedia domain name, for instance: and you will enter a mirrored version of the actual Wikipedia.” The website

Wikipedia has been using this method ever since 2012, when the first ban occurred in Malaysia. It’s impossible to ban all of the sites because the more zero’s you add, the more sites open up.

Credit: Unsplash

“Because we never really know which site will be blocked next, at school, people explained to me how to access sites via VPN.” Berat continues. A VPN, Virtual Private Network, is a systematic tool that’s entirely legal, a digital curtain that covers your exact location. You can download a VPN online for free. “I must say I felt like a bit of a rebel in the beginning when using the tool, but I am used to it now.” Berat says laughingly.

According to Duygu Kilinc (23), also a Media and Communications student at the Bilgi University, we should not judge too fast: ‘’Most foreigners are shocked by the fact that we have no full access to the internet, but this is not the case. We all have our tricks to get onto Wikipedia, and if they ban that URL, I am sure we would find a way to achieve access somehow. We are not lacking information because of the censorship.’’ she says.

Enes (23) also studies Media and Communications at the Bilgi University and explains how VPN has been helping Turkish citizens: “I remember in 2014 when Twitter was banned for about two weeks. Over 20 million people in the country used a VPN to access their Twitter accounts.”

Freedom of speech

On the 26th of December, 2019, Turkey’s Constitutional Court declared that the government-imposed block on Wikipedia is violating the freedom of speech of Turkish citizens. However, the block was not lifted until this day.

Sarper Durmus is a media teacher at the Bilgi University and explains how in Turkey the government is controlling the free speech of journalists nowadays: “The information online media companies publish is very much controlled by the government, just look at how many websites are banned after publishing the ‘wrong’ information. They can also block the financial access for independent journalists. That’s how the media economy is controlled.”

For students like Berat, who are pursuing a career as a journalist, there is a different side to the story: “To me the free access part of it is annoying but I take care of it pretty easily. Within my work and in this country the part that I’m sceptical and a bit afraid about is that as a journalist, I am not able to freely politically express myself. If you write something the Turkish Government does not approve with, your page can get taken down or worst case scenario you can go to jail. I have seen it happen before. It is scary to me that a country does not listen to a supreme court’s decision. That is why I prefer to pursue a career as a journalists in a more liberal country.”