Turkey's top telecommunications watchdog, the Information Technologies and Communications Authority (BTK), blocked access to a popular website Ekşi Sözlük (Sour Dictionary), user-contribution-based collaborative hypertext dictionary on February 21. The move is widely seen as the latest step in censoring online content that the state deems disinformation. On February 7, another popular social media platform, Twitter, was briefly blocked by the authorities on similar grounds. Ekşi Sözlük's editorial team was not informed what content specifically prompted the blocking. The last time BTK throttled access to social media platforms was in November 2022, when Turkey's largest city, Istanbul, was rocked by news of a deadly explosion on Istikal, the city's busiest pedestrian street.
— Basak Purut (@basakpurut) February 21, 2023
we just learned there is a decision to block access to @sozluk. We are investigating the decision and will share more information once we have it.
Ekşi Sözlük ekibine haber verilmeden, gerekçesi açıklanmadan, herhangi bir yurt dışındaki web sitesiymiş gibi BTK tarafından Ekşi Sözlük platformunun erişime engellenmesi asla kabul edilemez. Düpedüz sansür bu @sozluk @basakpurut @esesci
— Yaman Akdeniz (@cyberrights) February 21, 2023
It is absolutely unacceptable for BTK to block access to Ekşi Sözlük, as if it were any foreign website, without informing the Ekşi Sözlük team and explaining the reason. This is sheer censorship @sozluk @basakpurut @esesci
BTK can block sites without a court order according to Article 8A of the infamous internet bill 5651. The article empowers the watchdog to block access to specific content when it poses a danger to national security, public order, etc. However, according to the same article, the blocking decision must be communicated to the content provider. This was not the case, according to the CEO of Ekşi Sözlük, Basak Purut. In an interview with journalist Fatih Portakal on February 22, Purut said there was no communication between BTK and the platform editorial team about the blocking. BTK also did not inform the team what content specifically triggered this decision.
Access to one of Turkey’s most popular social networks #eksisozluk @sozluk has been blocked by authorities,see its ceo @basakpurut’s tweet below. The site was crucial in calls for help in the aftermath of quakes. It’s a platform where all sorts of voices are heard. Pros and cons. https://t.co/Cp1RSqiTFA
— Cagil M. Kasapoglu (@CagilKasapoglu) February 21, 2023
Ekşi Sözlük was created 24 years ago. Although it contains “dictionary” in its title, it is not a dictionary in a traditional sense as its contributors are not obliged to share accurate information, rather users leave comments on topics ranging from politics to science and other trivial matters. Its site is visited around 32–33 million times daily explained Purut in an interview with Portakal. “In the past there have been requests to remove specific content, which we have always complied with,” said Purut in an interview.
In 2000, the government set up the Telecommunications Authority, “to perform the regulatory and supervision duties in the electronic communication sector.” The agency was restructured in 2008, taking on a new name: the Information and Communication Technologies Authority. It operates under the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure.
In 2016, following the failed coup attempt, Turkey shut down the Department of Telecommunications and Communications (TİB) — Turkey’s leading internet censor — and handed all of its authority to the BTK.
TİB was set up in 2005 in order to centralize, “from a single unit, the surveillance of communications and execution of interception of communications warrants subject to laws No. 2559 (Law on the Duties and Powers of Police), No. 2803 (Law on the Organisation, Duties, and Powers of Gendarmerie), No. 2937 (Law on State Intelligence Services and National Intelligence Organisation), and No. 5271 (Criminal Procedural Act).”
In the aftermath of the alleged 2016 coup attempt, the authorities claimed that “TİB was used as a hub for FETÖ [The Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organisation] for surveillance and wiretapping purposes.”
As such, with the new powers, BTK went from being a regulatory body to an authority with surveillance powers that included, “the authority to take any measure it deems necessary to uphold ‘national security and public order; prevent crime; protect public health and public morals; or protect the rights and freedoms’ and inform operators, access providers, data centers, hosting providers and content providers of the said measure, who then need to take action within two hours.”
In Turkey, some twenty entities have the power to censor content online, and blocking news websites fully or partially is a common practice. Turkey introduced the infamous Law no. 5651, aka the Internet Bill, in 2007. The bill was amended in 2014, 2015, and 2020, and enables the authorities to block access to various websites, individual URLs, Twitter accounts, tweets, YouTube videos, and Facebook content. Meanwhile, several television channels are expecting steep fines, following the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) — Turkey's chief censor — meeting, which was scheduled to convene on February 22. At least four channels, Tele 1, Fox TV, Haber Turk, and Halk TV are expecting fines, according to journalist Fatih Portakal.