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Turkish Courts Slam Internet Curbs; Challenge Erdogan's Web Censorship


Demonstrators, members of the Turkish Youth Union, shout anti-government slogans during a protest against a Twitter ban, in Ankara, March 21, 2014.

Demonstrators, members of the Turkish Youth Union, shout anti-government slogans during a protest against a Twitter ban, in Ankara, March 21, 2014.

Rebuffing his government's efforts to censor parts of the Internet, Turkey's highest court Wednesday rejected Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's block of Twitter, saying it violates freedom of expression and individual rights.

The ruling comes in one of two legal challenges to the government's ban on certain social media sites. In a binding decision, the constitutional court ordered the government to "do what's necessary" to lift the ban.

It's not yet clear how, or if, the Erdogan government will respond.

With his broad, some say authoritarian, attempts to block social media, Erdogan has embarked on a bold but difficult strategy that is causing alarm worldwide among Internet freedom activists.

"Erdogan’s strategy is to demonize social media," says cyber law scholar Zeynep Tufekci. "It is a strategy of placing social media outside the sacred sphere, as a disruption of family, as a threat to unity, as an outside blade tearing at the fabric of society."

Added Doug Madory of the web security firm Renesys: "They are quite serious about censoring the Internet and are willing to go to lengths to do so."

Both Twitter and Google, which owns YouTube, have protested Istanbul's actions.

State Department spokesperson Marie Harf called Turkey's actions an encroachment on free speech, saying the U.S. will "continue to urge the Turkish government to unblock its citizens' access now to YouTube, but also still to Twitter."

Erdogan's antipathy to the Internet has been brewing for years.

"There is now a scourge that is called Twitter," he told a 2013 rally. "To me, social media is the worst menace to society!"

He has called Facebook "immoral," YouTube "a devouring force," and has promised to "eradicate" Twitter.

And last month, in the lead-up to local elections, Erdogan attempted to make make good on that promise by banning Twitter.

Twitter Fights Back

Promising to "wipe out" the micro-blogging site, Turkish telecomm officials - at Erdogan's orders - tried to simply block access to the site.

However, within hours Twitter users fought back, breaking through the ban by sending SMS messages, and later using Google's free Domain Name System, or DNS for short. A photo posted on Twitter apparently shows a Google DNS address spray painted into a building in Turkey.

A photo posted on Twitter apparently shows a Google DNS address spray painted into a building in Turkey.

DNS is the system that converts recognizable website domains, or names like "twitter.com", into the specific Internet address. Twitter activists quickly spread the word that by using Google's free DNS database of "8.8.8.8", users could easily workaround Turkey's block.

Nearly one week after the clumsy Twitter block, the Erdogan government announced a ban on YouTube, and strengthened the blocks for both sites.

Then the Erdogan government took it one step further.

In what analysts see as an unprecedented step for a government, it redirected web site searches accessed through Google to its own sites.

"We have received several credible reports and confirmed with our own research that Google’s Domain Name System (DNS) service has been intercepted by most Turkish ISPs (Internet Service Providers)," Google software engineer Steve Carstensen posted on the company's blog

Google "hijacking"

Earl Zmijewky with Renesys liken that to "hijacking" Google's Internet address book.

"Now when Turkish users seemingly ask a Google DNS server for YouTube’s address," Zmijewsky wrote on the Renesys blog, "they get the IP address of a Turkish government site (195.175.254.2)."

What that means, in short, is that Turkish Internet users presently cannot necessarily trust that any website they are accessing - either via domain name or DNS - is in fact the actual website.

That's because Turkey's telecommunications providers have apparently intentionally scrambled the Internet's "phone book" of domain listings, routing traffic around sites unpopular with the government.

"DNS tampering is done in a number of places, but this particular technique has not been used before on a national scale," said Renesys' Madory.

"China, for example, also does DNS tampering, but they do it by listening for DNS queries and then sending a forged bogus response to the client before the legitimate response arrives," Madory said. "They aren't hijacking IP address space to do it."

Among worst censors

For the moment, it doesn't appear that Turkey has implemented any tougher blocks than what's already in place.

Still, Internet free-speech activists continue sounding the alarm.

As this tweet points out, Turkey is now part of an elite club that censors two or more of the world's largest social media sites.

And while those blocks are likely to hold for a while, Jillian York, the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Director of International Freedom of Expression, said there are still plenty of ways to evade Turkey's censorship.

"Existing Turkish Twitter users can send Tweets using SMS," she says. "Avea and Vodafone users should text START to 2444. Turkcell users can text START to 2555. Tor can also be used to bypass censorship."

Analyst Madory also recommends using the anonymizing program Tor, or something called a Virtual Private Network, or VPN.

Internet legal scholar Zeynep Tufekci said its likely both the government will keep trying to vilify and block social media, and that Turkish Internet activists will continue busting holes through the blocks.

"Erdogan likely still has enough supporters to win elections, but to continue to win, he needs to keep them off social media," she said. "His game is to scare them about all that comes from social media. He knows they’ll hear of the corruption tapes.

"But they are now associated with the same source that maligns housewives as porn-stars," she said.
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    Doug Bernard

    Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to "The New York Times," the "Christian Science Monitor," SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.

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