The Turkish government’s pressure on Twitter, Facebook, Google and other Internet companies to establish a presence in Turkey has more to do with abuse of the criminal justice system to punish critics and little to do with collecting taxes on online advertising revenues.
According to documents obtained by Nordic Monitor, the Turkish police expressed frustration in identifying government critics because US companies such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Google do not maintain offices in Turkey and hence refuse to share information with the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
In a document dated July 30, 2018 and sent to the Istanbul 33rd High Criminal Court, Özgür Karlıtepe, who heads the cybercrime unit at the Istanbul Police Department, lamented that the police had failed to produce a comprehensive report on a critic. He blamed the shortcomings in the report on the uncooperative attitude of US-based companies like Twitter, Facebook, Google and Instagram.
The report was prepared after the Istanbul court on February 14, 2018 asked for an investigation into the social media accounts of a defendant named Savaş Kahraman, who was being tried in the case of Kaynak Holding, a major conglomerate that included Turkey’s largest publishing house which was unlawfully seized by the government in 2015. However, the police failed to obtain information from US companies Facebook, Instagram, Google, Twitter and YouTube when it communicated with the lawyers’ offices representing these companies. The police said the information could have been obtained if the managers of these companies were present in Turkey and maintained offices there.
In response to the police requests, the lawyers representing the US Internet firms referred to a 1979 agreement on extradition and mutual assistance on criminal matters between Turkey and the US. Since the agreement rules out any cooperation on politically motivated charges and stipulates a US judicial review, it is nearly impossible for the Erdoğan government to obtain private information about critics of the regime.
The police said they could not communicate with the managers of companies such as Facebook, Instagram, Google, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, Blogspot and Periscope because they reside outside Turkey. They added that in the past the police contacted two Istanbul-based law offices, Elig Lokmanhekim Ictem Gurkaynak, which represented Gmail and Twitter, and BTS & Partners, which represented Facebook, but they failed to obtain identity information on account holders. The law firms responded that the matter must be handled through the 1979 bilateral agreement between Turkey and the US.
Nevertheless, the documents show that the cybercrime unit tried to crack and hack into accounts that allegedly belonged to the defendant using the email address registered on his social media accounts, but they failed as several people had similar names. On February 14, 2018 the police conducted the first examination of Kahraman’s social media accounts but came up empty-handed.
A total of 110,000 social media accounts were investigated, 7,109 social media users were detained and 2,754 of them were arrested in 2018 due to their posts, according to a statement from Turkey’s Security Directorate General issued in December 2018. The directorate said 2,828 of the social media users who were detained were released on judicial probation. Turkish police detain dozens and at times hundreds of people over their social media accounts every week.
Thousands of social media accounts and websites that are critical of Erdoğan and the government have been blocked by courts that are accused of acting on political orders from the government. The rule of law was effectively suspended in Turkey, with the judiciary completely subordinated to the executive branch following a mass purge of more than 4,000 judges and prosecutors, or one-third of the entire judicial staff in Turkey.
According to Twitter’s latest Transparency Report, which covered the July 1, 2017-Dec. 31, 2017 period, Turkey issued 466 court orders for removal requests, while the number for the rest of the world combined was 47. In other words, 91 percent of censorship requests in the form of court judgements came from only one country, Turkey, demonstrating how the Turkish judiciary has been politicized and subordinated to the executive branch of government.