A few weeks back, we Tweeted some news about the Turkish government blocking access to 60 million WordPress sites in an effort to block one single blog post written by a professor accusing another professor of plagiarism. Shortly after we heard from Barış Ünver, a 27-year-old web developer and Tuts+ author living in Ankara, the capital of Turkey.
@TheTorqueMag WordPress is blocked too? Heh, it seems that we set the record today: Facebook, Twitter, WordPress… and even Google.
— Baris Unver (EN) (@BarisUnver_EN) April 6, 2015
Torque: You mentioned some trouble you had back in 2010, could you tell us a little more about that? I’m assuming it was blogging related?
Barış Ünver: Yeah. I’ve had a blog named Beyn since 2006—it was a personal blog back then, but after “the incident” and its media coverage, I thought it would work better as an “opinion blog,” predominantly about politics.
It’s a really long story, but I’ll keep it short. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Prime Minister during that time, and the President today, wanted to lock me up because I used the exact same words to describe him as he did on his opposers during his political campaigns back in 2010.
I got acquitted after three hearings over one and a half long years. (Actually, the case is still in the Supreme Court and I might still face two years of jail time if they disagree with my judge.) I still write on Beyn, but not as frequent because over the course of the case, I literally lost my ability to write without worrying about being locked up because I use a term that angers the government.
Torque: I was reading about WordPress being blocked in all of Turkey due to a court ruling regarding one specific blog post. Would you say this is a common occurrence or relatively rare? Did you even notice WordPress was down?
Barış Ünver: It’s not extremely common, but we experience downtime on large websites like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter a couple times each year. WordPress.com is actually one of the first websites that was blocked back in 2007—you can read the story here.
Torque: I’m sure you’re familiar with several of the ways to use VPN to work around internet blackouts, but I was wondering if these techniques are common knowledge or if the average internet user in Turkey is completely locked out of sites when they are being censored?
Barış Ünver: Let me put it this way: we have about 40 million internet users in Turkey and probably half of them knows how to use a VPN service! (That’s what you get when you block giants like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.)
We should probably thank Zenmate and TunnelBear (and Erdoğan) for it. Seventy percent of our online population use Google Chrome, and Zenmate made it really easy to use a VPN in Chrome. TunnelBear not only made it easy like Zenmate, the company also granted Turkish users free bandwidth in Gezi Park protests (which happened in the summer of 2013, consisted of the protests of almost five million people and was the time of the largest online blackouts).
Torque: With the upcoming elections, you mentioned that censorship was bound to increase in Turkey. As a developer what does that mean for you in the upcoming months? Do you expect online censorship to make your job more difficult for a while, or do you expect it to business as usual?
Barış Ünver: To be honest, I don’t think censorship affects web developers that much. Even grandmas know how to use a VPN; and web developers, heh, we would turn our own servers into VPN servers if necessary. But I’m absolutely sure that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will be using the power of blocking websites, because they actually made it even easier by passing another regulation that allows the government to block a web page or a complete website in just four hours. (This means that if you don’t respond to the government’s demands, they have the right to block Google in four hours.) But still, it isn’t as easy as developing web in a country that provides more freedom online.
It’s hard to imagine what life would be like in a country where a major website could be blocked because of a single post, but it’s great to see WordPress and other sites stand up to censorship whenever they can.
With elections coming up in a few months it’s possible we might see an even stricter control ahead, though Barış seems optimistic for the future of the web in Turkey.
“We might change the way the government works by electing “better” people in the upcoming general elections in June – wish us luck!”