Internet censorship in Turkey has taken a rather sinister turn after the country’s communications regulator passed an ambiguous new regulation which many fear could be used by the Erdogan regime to censor online streaming platforms like Netflix.
Political and moral censorship
The new regulation was approved after a five-hour meeting of the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) and grants the regulator authority to supervise and censor online streaming platforms. It had previously been passed by the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (TBMM) back in March.
It requires all online streaming services available in Turkey to apply for a license from RTÜK to operate. If that license is not obtained, Turkish courts are empowered to block access to that service across the whole country.
Once a license is obtained, RTÜK will have the power of oversight over the regime. With this, they can demand the removal of any content which doesn’t comply with their rules.
RTÜK is already notorious across Turkey for promoting a hardline conservative moral agenda in its rulings. It has handed out huge fines and censored countless TV and radio broadcasts it judges to be immoral or against Turkish values
With RTÜK now having approved this new regulation internally, Turkish internet users can begin to get used to the idea of their favourite online streaming service coming under much closer scrutiny from Government-powered regulators.
Even more worrying, it also has a long track record of censoring content that doesn’t fit the Erdogan regime’s line of political and international issues. Five of the nine members of RTÜK’s governing council are directly appointed by the government.
How far will new censorship powers stretch?
Many people are now questioning just how far the regime is planning to stretch their control over online media content. The regulation is intended to target broadcasters rather than individuals and technically someone posting a video on YouTube should be exempt from the new controls.
But members of the RTÜK Council have already publicly questioned whether a YouTube video that receives a significant number of hits should be treated differently to a real broadcaster.
This raises the prospect of RTÜK potentially seeking to censor who swathes of YouTube content it deems either immoral or against the interests of the Erdogan regime.
State control of the mainstream media means that online platforms like YouTube are increasingly important for opposition voices in Turkey to get their message heard. However, this is all the more reason why the Erdogan regime is likely to want to control them.
The precise term used in the regulation is ‘channels making broadcasts on the Internet’ and many have suggested that this is deliberately vague in order to allow authorities to effectively censor anything they want.
Will Netflix be banned in Turkey?
One Turkish academic, Professor Dr Yaman Akdeniz from the Faculty of Law at İstanbul Bilgi University, has also suggested authorities are likely to target streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime.
Neither of these platforms will carry much content which challenges the Erdogan regime, but there will be a significant amount which is offensive to the morals of conservative Turks. Akdeniz questions whether such platforms will “accept the demands of blurring their own contents or putting a flower on them.”
He also questions whether they have the infrastructure or willpower to remove individual shows at the behest of the Turkish authorities. If they do not comply, the next option for RTÜK would be to block access altogether, although this would undoubtedly be a hugely unpopular move.
There are already some reports that Netflix may have already started censoring content in Turkey.
A tweet from the anonymous account @selfmachine, based in Istanbul, reports that American animated TV series Over the Garden Wall, a seemingly innocent fantasy cartoon about two brothers trying to find their way home, has already been censored. They posted an image of a scene involving a character smoking a pipe in which the pipe has ludicrously been blurred out.
The account reports that the scene in question was previously available but can now only be accessed with a VPN.
Using VPNs to evade online censorship in Turkey
If censorship of online streaming platforms does become the norm in Turkey, then we can expect VPN use across the country to rise significantly.
The crackdown on online freedom in the wake of the failed 2016 coup against President Erdogan has already seen many Turks turn to a VPN to facilitate unimpeded internet access. The regime responded by trying to ban VPNs and the Tor network across Turkey.
That has had a very limited effect so far, although the regime remains committed to it. But to date, there are no shortage of VPN services still available in Turkey.
To find the best one for you, take a look at our guide to the best VPNs for Turkey.