The arrest of 75,000 people in Turkey for downloading an encrypted messaging app has been declared illegal, according to a new legal opinion which has been published in London.
The study into the legality of the arrests, which has been published by 2 Bedford Row Chambers, states that the arrest carried out as a result of downloading the popular ByLock app were both arbitrary and illegal.
Turkey’s online crackdown
The arrests came in the wake of a failed coup in Turkey which was put down by forces loyal to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last summer. Since then, Erdoğan has used the coup as an excuse to strengthen his own powerbase whilst cracking down hard on political opposition and all voices of dissent.
This has included numerous attempts to shut down online tools which the Turkish regime claims were used in the coup attempt. This has included attempts to block Tor and VPN access, Wikipedia, and some Cloud Storage providers as well as blocking the internet altogether in some parts of the country.
Erdoğan argues that the coup was directly linked to Fethullah Gülen, a US-based preacher who has regularly spoken out against the current President’s regime. He denies this, but the crackdown on Gülen’s supporters has nonetheless been brutal.
This has included arresting nearly everyone in Turkey who had downloaded the ByLock app, with the Turkish regime claiming that this app was only available to Gülen sympathisers.
The new legal opinion, which was undertaken by experienced human rights lawyers William Clegg QC and Simon Baker and was commissioned by a group of Erdoğan opponents, concludes that this is “utterly unconvincing and unsupported by any evidence.”
They go on to say that “there is a great deal of evidence … which demonstrates that the app was widely available and used in many different countries, some of which had no links to Turkey.”
ByLock – a widely used encryption app
In fact, ByLock was one of the many encrypted messaging apps available to iOS and Android users. It was available for free and was downloaded more than 600,000 times between April 2014 and April 2016 according to a separate report by British computer forensics expert, Thomas Moore. He described the idea that the app was only available to a restricted group of people as “nonsensical”.
Those who have been arrested as a result of using ByLock include lawyers, civil servants, judges, army officers, journalists, authors, and anyone who might be considered a threat to Erdoğan’s grip on power.
Perhaps the most notable name to be have been detained is Taner Kiliç, who is the head of Amnesty International in Turkey. According to a statement by Amnesty, a download of ByLock is the only link Turkish authorities have between Kiliç and Gülen supporters. Kiliç denies downloading or even having heard of ByLock before his detention.
Why pick on ByLock?
The reason why ByLock has been singled out is a curious one. It is by no means the only encrypted messaging service available in Turkey and was not singled out at the time of the coup last year, when numerous other social media and messaging services were blocked.
Perhaps it was being used by those who oppose the Erdoğan, but it is unlikely to have been more popular than other, better-known apps like WhatsApp and Telegram. Perhaps this is the start of a particular crackdown on encrypted communications more generally. Turkey would not be the only authoritarian regime to go down that path.
A bleak future for online freedom
What it means for the future of Turkey is pretty clear though. As this legal opinion notes categorically, these arrests are a clear breach of Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Turkey is a signatory. Such an egregious violation of human rights law is likely to extinguish any lingering hopes Turkey held of joining the European Union.
Unfortunately, whereas previous this would have probably encouraged Turkey to relent, in the current geopolitical climate, Erdoğan appears to be buoyed by the successes of fellow autocrats Vladimir Putin in Russia and Xi Jinping in China and willing to stick it out.
He is most likely confident that the international community will do little to stop his abuse of power, regardless of what laws he breaks. And he is probably right.
All of which is likely to be bad news for online freedom in Turkey. Further crackdowns and censorship are likely to follow as he attempts to control information flow to his people. This means that, despite his efforts to block them, VPNs are likely to continue to be the only way for Turkish people to access critical content about their leader for the foreseeable future.