State-run WhatsApp rival and new online watchdog powers spark new censorship concerns in Turkey

Turkey censorship

Online censorship and surveillance appear to be on the rise in Turkey after the regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan launched a state-sponsored online messenger service to rival WhatsApp and expanded the powers of the country’s broadcasting watchdog to cover online content.

The Turkish people have been faced with a mounting online crackdown ever since the Erdoğan regime successfully saw off an attempted coup eighteen months ago. Since then the country has attempted to block online anonymiser services such as VPNs and the Tor Network.

They have blocked access to hundreds more websites and even cut internet access altogether for long periods in some parts of the country. A particular target of the regime has been encrypted messenger services and social media sites, which they fear could be used by opposition figures to coordinate a fresh attempt to remove Erdoğan and return Turkey to proper democracy again.

The new Turkish government app that’s “safer than WhatsApp”

WhatsApp was particularly popular in Turkey with an estimated 40% of the country using the service in December 2016 according to official data research firm Statista. This makes the launch of a state-developed alternative service particularly concerning according to opposition leaders.

Filiz Kerestecioglu, from the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), said: “The goal is to record who every citizen is speaking to and what they are saying.” Given that thousands of people have been arrested for their online activity in the wake of the coup, these concerns appear well founded.

The Turkish government insist that the new service, which is called PttMessenger is an improvement on WhatsApp. Government spokesman Bekir Bozdag told a news conference that PttMessenger was “a “system safer than WhatsApp”. He also insisted that user data on the service would not be retrievable, but this claim has been widely derided by critics.

Yaman Akdeniz, a law professor at Istanbul Bilgi University, told Reuters that there was no evidence the new service was more secure than WhatsApp and it would most likely make it easier for Turkish intelligence and law enforcement agencies to access and retrieve communications data.

“An app designed with government support, especially if that government is Turkey, where there are serious violations of fundamental rights and freedoms, should make potential users think not three, but five times about using it,” he added.

The new messenger service is initially being rolled out to government agencies and some private companies. It is expected to be made available to the general public in around six months time. It remains to be seen just how many Turkish people are willing to place their trust, and private conversations, in the hands of the Erdoğan regime.

Watchdog’s expanded remit sparks fresh censorship concerns

Just prior to the launch of the PttMessenger app, the Turkish government also announced that it was planning to expand the powers of the country’s RTUK watchdog. This is the body which overseas broadcasting in Turkey, but whose remit will soon be expanded to include online content.

Under a draft law, which has now been submitted to the Turkish Parliament, the RTUK watchdog will be granted the power to block a whole host of different types of online content which is deemed to be a threat to moral values or national security.

The type of online content which the RTUK watchdog will be able to block includes video and audio content being streamed online, movies and TV shows on streaming services such as Netflix, and social media content.

The man responsible for the new law, Ahmet Arslan, the country’s Transport, Maritime and Communication Minister launched a staunch defence of the new proposals last week, rolling out the old arguments too often seen in places like China and Russia.

“Freedoms are not limitless,” he declared before added that the new law was not intended to censor “work being done within our normal moral values”, but instead at “preventing wrongs”. Quite who gets to define these so-called wrongs was not specified, but the general consensus is that this will be at the discretion of the Erdoğan regime.

Opposition leaders have also condemned this proposal. The HDP’s Filiz Kerestecioglu said of this proposal that, “The Internet, which facilitates the spread of information and organization of the public, is being put under surveillance by political actors trying to prevent citizens from getting information.”

He went on to describe the erosion of online freedoms on Turkey as a “fundamental problem” currently being faced by the country.

How to evade the Turkish regimes online crackdown

On the face of it, he appears to be absolutely right about this. Online freedoms have deteriorated significantly in the past eighteen months with censorship and surveillance unquestionably on the rise.

Encrypted communication has been a particular target, although efforts to ban VPN access in Turkey has only had a limited effect. Many of the most prominent VPN providers are still accessible in Turkey and offer a lifeline to the Turkish people.

By using a VPN, it is possible for them to access sites which are blocked by the Erdoğan regime as well as help to hide their online identity and so enable them to speak freely online without fear of reprisals.

Not every VPN is available in Turkey, so to find the best ones, take a look at our latest guide to the Best VPNs for Turkey.

All of the providers listed should enable internet users in Turkey to access the myriad of online sites and service that are already inaccessible or soon will be thanks to the RTUK watchdog’s new powers. And they will also allow them to use WhatsApp freely, meaning they can avoid using the regimes highly dubious new PttMessenger app.

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