Turkey Blocks Twitter. Could It Happen Here? It’s Come Close Already.

Somebody having an argument on Twitter is not news. Somebody having an argument with Twitter could be news. Somebody who runs a government that controls a country’s Internet access who has an issue with Twitter? That’s news.

Supporters of Republican People’s Party (CHP) shout anti-government slogans outside the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) in Ankara April 1, 2014. Photo: Reuters

The particular dust-up I’m referring to started March 20, when Twitter went offline in Turkey. It was not long after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, angry about tweets spreading audio recordings pointing to corruption in his administration, had vowed at a campaign rally to “wipe out” the microblogging service.

Many of the roughly 10 million Turkish citizens on Twitter quickly found workaroundschanging their computers’ Domain Name System service settings on their computers to use free, public DNS from Google or OpenDNS.

(The Turkish Twitter block worked by twisting the usual DNS translation of Internet names to numeric Internet Protocol addresses: People who typed “twitter.com” would be redirected to a page saying the service had been blocked. To get around the block, they could specify that their computers use a different DNS service, like Google’s easy-to-remember, and easy-to-graffiti,

Turkish Twitter members could also connect to the service via old-fashioned text messaging. And the predictable happened: Twitter use in the country skyrocketed — even from Turkish President Abdullah Gül, who surfaced on the service for the first time since February to decry the cutoff.

Twitter, for its part, said it had already addressed some of Erdoğan’s complaints by removing Turkish access to tweets that broke its own rules.

Blocking Twitter, by itself, put Erdoğan’s government in rare company: the likes of China, Iran, and North Korea.

Erdoğan then moved to block Google DNS as well as Twitter’s own IP addresses — ensuring that no alternative DNS service could get people to Twitter. By Saturday, Türk Telekom was routing requests for foreign DNS servers to its own DNS, while YouTube had been blocked as well for hosting an audio recording allegedly leaked from a government security meeting over Syria.

That leaves Turkish tweeters to rely on trickier virtual private network services such as Hotspot Shield (newly popular in Turkey) and anonymous browsing networks like the Edward Snowden-endorsed Tor.

And all this happened even though on Friday, a Turkish court had overruled the initial takedown order. A Twitter spokesperson said Monday the company remains “optimistic” that Türk Telekom will honor the court ruling.

Jillian York, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s director for international freedom of expression, captured the absurdity of the situation in an email Monday: “It really is unique for a democracy to take such extreme extralegal measures to censor online content.”

Let’s stop right here to stipulate that trying to make things vanish off the Internet doesn’t work, and that you only dig your own hole deeper by confusing a communications tool with the content shared over it. Turkey could enforce a 100 percent effective block on Twitter, and interested and annoyed citizens would just move to some other platform.

To paraphrase a famous saying by one of Isaac Asimov’s characters: “Blocking a social network is the last refuge of the incompetent.”

Could it happen here?
But lest we be too quick to point and laugh at the spectacle of Ankara trying to fight the Internet, remember that some of what Turkey’s done has been tried elsewhere. Like here in the U.S. of A.

Redirecting visitors to a site to a page run by the government? Check. The U.S. government has seized hundreds of domain names for such alleged crimes as streaming infringing video or selling counterfeit items.

(Copyright infringement is a real crime, but these seizures took place under “civil seizure” provisions that don’t require a trial.)

In one such case uncovered by Techdirt’s Mike Masnick in December of 2011, the feds seized the wrong domain and then covered up their silencing of the hip-hop blog Dajaz1 for over a year as they waited for copyright holders to provide more details about the alleged infringement.

Finally, what about breaking DNS and DNS workarounds? The Stop Online Piracy Act would have required Internet providers to do just that on the say-so of a copyright holder claiming infringement. And good advance work by Hollywood lobbyists as well as the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO had greased the skids for SOPA’s quick passage — except everyday citizens found out, got righteously angry, and let Congress know.

Last summer, a court ruling suggested that using a VPN service like Hotspot Shield might violate the grotesquely open-ended Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. And just Monday, what I trust was an errant claim of copyright infringement under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act caused a video of a House committee hearing to get yanked from YouTube.

So, sure, mock Erdoğan’s bullying ways all you want. But don’t think they’re implausible here, under the right conditions.

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.