human rights are violated by turkey’s internet throttling
On 1 March 2023, ARTICLE 19 submitted an expert opinion in relation to the legal case concerning bandwidth throttling and mobile service provider (GSM) disruptions that occurred following the earthquakes in Turkey in February of that year. In our submission, we argued that any internet shutdowns or other intentional disturbances to access violated Turkey’s obligations under international human rights law, as they are never proportionate or justifiable during natural disasters. Furthermore, we implored the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office to launch a swift inquiry into what caused the closure and make sure those responsible are brought to justice.
On 6 February, Turkey was struck by two major earthquakes that caused incalculable destruction in many provinces, districts and villages, particularly in Kahramanmaraş, Malatya, Diyarbakır, Kilis, Şanlıurfa, Adıyaman, Hatay, Osmaniye and Adana. There are numerous accounts of individuals who were buried underneath debris using mobile phones and social media to get hold of aid. Survivors are believed to have taken advantage of Twitter as one of the primary channels to request emergency assistance. Additionally, rescue operations would be coordinated based on data and locations shared over the platform.
Reports on 8 February indicated that access to Twitter and TikTok was blocked by a number of internet service providers, with some providing limited service. This led to the complete shut-off of those sites in Turkey for about 12 hours, unless one employed a virtual private network (VPN). While an explanation for the confrontation has yet to be declared, it is suspected that the platforms were temporality taken down as a result of the government’s stance on a given event.
It was critical that the interference occurred within 72 hours, since a timely response could have saved human lives. As a result of disruptions, people have been unable to contact vital services and rescue teams, which has resulted in further damage to individuals and communities.
Veysel Ok, the co-director of the Media and Law Studies Association and a qualified lawyer, is taking legal action with regards to the disruption and mobile service providers’ service outage, aiming to promote an investigation into the matter and filing a public lawsuit against those responsible. The case, supported by ARTICLE 19’s expert opinion outlining that the interruption violated international and regional human rights standards on freedom of expression, is being brought against officials from Turkey’s Information and Communications Agency (BTK) as well as mobile service providers (Turkcell, Vodafone, Türk Telekom).
In the expert opinion, we also stress that it is precisely in situations such as natural disasters that internet shutdowns and other forms of intentional disruptions regarding access to the internet cannot be justified. This interference cannot possibly be considered proportionate for any conceivable reason.
ARTICLE 19 also joins Veysel Ok in his call for the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office to conduct a proper and speedy investigation into the circumstances that led to the throttling and to bring those responsible to justice.