The Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government, frustrated with Turkish Internet users' circumventing a ban that has blocked access to Twitter since early last Friday, has blocked access to public Domain Name System (DNS) servers provided by Google, making Turkey the first country ever to take such drastic measures to block access to a website.
Google DNS has been widely used by Twitter users to get on the micro-blogging site since the introduction of the ban three days ago. The ban came literally hours after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said at a public rally in Bursa that he was determined to “root out Twitter,” where several users have posted leaked phone recordings and photographs that allegedly serve as proof of graft allegations leveled against his family and government by a public prosecutor in an investigation launched on Dec. 17.
Cabinet members have offered differing explanations as to why Twitter is now blocked in Turkey. Health Minister Mehmet Müezzinoğlu said Twitter was blocked because of a ruling having been ignored by the Turkish courts. He said the company is now groveling: “Twitter has knelt down [before the Turkish government]. [We are a] nation in love with its independence. And [enhancing] this is what Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has done. We are no banana republic. And by no means are we a pineapple republic.”
According to Forestry and Water Affairs Minister Veysel Eroğlu, the real reason why Twitter was blocked was to ensure that the upcoming municipal elections scheduled for March 30 will pass in peace. Speaking to the press while campaigning in Afyonkarahisar, his hometown, Eroğlu said, “As you know, Twitter was blocked due to a court ruling. I presume it will be reopened soon. As you know, there have been many sensational and manufactured stories recently because of the elections. The elections should take place in a healthy environment. There has to be peace [for elections to take place].”
Despite varying explanations from government members, the Twitter ban is seen by many as a desperate attempt to cover up the graft allegations. It also proved to be an unsuccessful method, as users resorted to Google Public DNS -- "a free, global DNS resolution service that you can use as an alternative to your current DNS provider," as described by Google -- to circumvent the ban. On Saturday, access to Google DNS was also blocked. Twitter users reported that some alternative DNS servers shared online were also blocked. However, many users still were able to access the site through Virtual Private Networks (VPN). Jokes about Twitter users' adaptability were rife on Twitter and other social media. Zaytung, a Turkish parody-news website, reported that a 42-year-old housewife who had to learn how to log on to Twitter quickly became incredibly tech-savvy and hacked the website of the Ministry of Transport, Maritime Affairs and Communications.
However, experts note that blocking access to Google DNS in fact has wider repercussions than just cutting access to Twitter, as not being able to access Google DNS also prevents users from accessing certain websites. Fehmi Ünsal Özmestik, an information technologies (IT) lawyer, said the ban, which is implemented by the Telecommunications Directorate (TİB), is against the law. “This is a first in the world, he noted, referring to the blocking of Google DNS servers. He said shutting down Twitter as it has been done is illegal according to the current laws. “Blocking access to an entire website is against the law and it is a major blow to freedom of expression. The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has punished our country in the past for similar practices.”
Technology writer Deniz Ergürel said blocking access to Google DNS is an extraordinary move, reiterating Özmestik's point that it is also unprecedented. Ergürel also noted that figures indicate that a record number of Tweets were posted by Turkish users after the ban, and that the move is damaging Turkey's reputation in the eyes of the international community. “We can't shut down an entire shopping mall due to malpractice in one or two stores. If there is a crime, those who committed it should be punished. It is wrong to victimize millions of people.”
Radikal columnist Cüneyt Özdemir said: “That they are blocking Google DNS shows that they are still trying to block Twitter,” the futility of which should have been well documented by the government since the ban was introduced Friday. Özdemir indicated that blocking Google DNS could be an ominous move indicating that a ban on YouTube, also owned by Google, is around the corner.
Turkish Nobel laureate writer Orhan Pamuk sent out a harsh statement via his publisher, İletişim Publishing, saying that blocking Twitter was a move targeting fundamental rights. “The ban is an action taken against the freedom of expression and most fundamental liberties," he wrote.
On Friday, it became evident that TİB treated a ruling by İstanbul 5th Peace Court to block Internet access to the Twitter account “Hırsıza oy yok” (No votes for thieves) as the legal basis for blocking the entire micro-blogging site, which experts say is in violation of the current law regulating Internet crimes, even after the harsh changes made to it in January giving the government too much power to shut down websites it does not favor.
According to a Wikipedia definition, the DNS system “is an essential component of the functionality of the Internet.” The same Wikipedia page offers a simple analogy, saying the DNS system “serves as the phone book for the Internet by translating human-friendly computer hostnames into IP addresses.”
Outrage and criticism
Outrage at the ban has been widespread, but not without humor. Most columnists, such as Hürriyet's Ahmet Hakan, noted that the ban places Turkey in the same league as North Korea, but also noted that the prime minister effectively and possibly unintentionally turned Twitter into a “center of attraction, now abandoned by [his] supporters.” Hürriyet's Ertuğrul Özkök noted that users quickly bypassed the ban, even those users who are close to the government, such as Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç, who was among the first few people to tweet minutes after the ban went into force on Friday.
Radikal daily's Editor-in-Chief Eyüp Can noted: “The government is shooting itself in the foot. The prime minister is leaving defenseless even the most loyal among his supporters.” He said Turkey was increasingly headed to being positioned in the same league as the likes of China, Russia and Iran.
The ban placed President Abdullah Gül in a difficult situation, according to Journalist Altan Öymen. “Obviously he is against the decision to ban Twitter. He made this clear both in a statement and then [on Twitter]. He continued tweeting using the methods used to circumvent the ban.”
Gül speaks out against Twitter ban
President Abdullah Gül, who spoke with the press on Sunday before departing from Ankara's Esenboğa Airport to the Hague, where he will be attending the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit, said: “They said Twitter has been banned, but as you see, it hasn't been. The number of users has doubled.” He said it is legally impossible to shut down such social media sites, adding: “Sometimes issues arise with such platforms [like Twitter]. As you know, I have had meetings with companies such as Twitter and Facebook. As these problems have arisen, [government bureaucrats] have held meetings and they [social media companies] have responded at the highest level. These situations, which are unpleasant for a country negotiating with the European Union, will soon be eliminated.”
Gül also responded to a question regarding phone wiretaps. “The current situation shows that some officials have wiretapped many lines on their own. These are all illegal and those who are behind them will be tried under the law. I can't say my lines haven't been tapped, but I don't have any worries about voice recordings emerging.”
The president was widely criticized for not vetoing recent changes to Law No. 5651 on cybercrimes, which was sponsored by the government and adopted in January, and which many say laid the ground for the current ban.