Twittersphere rallies to help Turks by-pass block

Mar 21, 2014 by Rob Lever
A Turkish man uses his smartphone, in the Eminonu district of Istanbul, on March 21, 2014

The global Internet community rallied to help Twitter users in Turkey circumvent a block on the popular messaging service on Friday, as some experts said Ankara's efforts are backfiring.

After Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to to "wipe out" Twitter and the site went dark there Thursday, there was no lack of help from activists, Internet companies and others.

"Trying to ban Twitter has backfired," said Philip Howard, who heads the Digital Activism Research Project at the University of Washington.

"It's drawn the world's attention to the country's increasingly tough censorship and surveillance strategy."

Howard told AFP the Turkish move quickly became a "trending topic" on Twitter which prompted fresh criticism of the government.

"News of the ban seems to have driven more Turks to try Twitter out for the first time—breaking national records for use. Tip sheets for getting around the ban spread like wildfire," he said.

Shortly after Twitter connections were broken, the US-based social media giant posted a message reminding users they could get onto the platform through SMS text messaging.

Other activists pointed to ways to tweak a computer's Internet settings to access Twitter.

And some firms offered access to their VPN—a virtual private network which masks the user's information to circumvent the ban.

Around the world, #Turkey and #TurkeyBlockedTwitter were big topics on the social platform.

'Flood' of tweets

Zeynep Tufekci, a University of North Carolina sociologist who is Turkish, followed the news in real time and posted a blog on how her compatriots responded.

"People circumvented, one by one, and then in a flood," she wrote.

"By the end of it all, most trending topics worldwide, and of course in Turkey, were about the blocking of Twitter, and of course, opposing it.

People demonstrate against new controls over the Internet approved by the Turkish Parliament in Ankara on February 22, 2014

"Let alone be deterred, the number of tweets in Turkish and from Turkey were close to record-breaking levels."

Turkey has been one of the most popular countries for the one-to-many messaging service, and has been used to help organize protests.

Some surveys suggest around one in seven Internet users in Turkey use Twitter.

The threat against Twitter is the latest in a series of moves by Erdogan's government to tighten its control of the Internet that have included the banning of thousands of websites.

The Turkish premier has come under mounting pressure since audio recordings spread across social media that appeared to put him at the heart of a major corruption scandal.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul, a frequent user of , led the chorus of calls against the ban. And activists around the world quickly denounced the Ankara government.

Protesters hold a placard reading "Theft is free, Internet is banned" as they demonstrate against new controls on the Internet approved by the Turkish parliament, in Ankara on February 8, 2014

"The decision to block Twitter, a leading medium of communication in Turkey, is quite a dramatic step for a government that claims to be democratic," said David Kramer, president of the pro-democracy group Freedom House.

"It is a bold attempt to stop news of government corruption from getting out in the run-up to local elections. The government should immediately reopen Twitter and recognize that free, unhindered space for debate is essential in Turkey as it is anywhere else."

Ban is 'futile'

Some activists and analysts said the ban was unlikely to succeed.

"While the seems futile, what it indicates is an increasingly authoritarian Turkey," said Jillian York at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Emily Parker, a New America Foundation fellow who has a new book on digital activism in authoritarian governments, noted that many people are able to use Twitter despite bans in countries such as China.

"Turkey may have an even harder time keeping people off of Twitter," Parker told AFP.

"Twitter is already extremely popular in Turkey, and has millions of users. It is difficult for authorities to take away Internet freedoms that people once enjoyed."

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