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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 1 March 2021

Turkey opts for digital nationalism as fears mount over WhatsApp policy change

Turkish messaging app BiP said it gained 4.6 million new users at the weekend

People browse smartphones at the passenger ferry pier in Istanbul, Turkey. Bloomberg
People browse smartphones at the passenger ferry pier in Istanbul, Turkey. Bloomberg

Turkey is advocating the services of local messaging apps in the wake of Facebook plans to integrate the social network’s messaging services, a step critics say will weaken users’ protection against digital snooping and further tighten the police state grip on freedoms.

Last week WhatsApp, which was bought by Facebook in 2014, set out new terms asking users to agree for location and other personal data to be passed to its parent company, prompting many Turkish users to delete their WhatsApp accounts.

Spurring the exodus from WhatsApp, the head of the government’s digital office, Ali Taha Koc, called on Turks to “stand against fascism together”, a reference to a November speech by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in which he called for a stance against “digital fascism”.

“We need to protect our digital data with local and national software and develop them in line with our needs. Let’s not forget that Turkey's data would stay in Turkey thanks to local and national solutions,” Mr Koc said.

Chief among such solutions are Turkish messaging apps such as BiP, owned by mobile operator Turkcell, which said that it had gained 4.6 million new users between Friday and Sunday.

Rival messaging apps Telegram and Signal also experienced a surge in demand.

“This is a form of digital nationalism, a way of keeping data at home and part of the general tendency to push for more national whatever-it-may-be,” said Erkan Saka, associate professor at Istanbul Bilgi University’s school of communications.

“Turkcell is partly owned by the government so one can legitimately think that personal data may be under surveillance. BiP is not a very secure platform so it can be hacked easily,” he said.

Fears mounting over freedom of speech

Journalists working in Turkey, among others, expressed reservations about using BiP after the government’s communications directorate declared that all announcements and invitations would be issued exclusively via the app.

“With the BiP application, there’s a strong feeling that it is more pressure on journalists and another way of monitoring them,” said a foreign reporter.

“We know our social media is monitored and there is the concern that Turkcell might be more inclined to give up information about users, such as phone contacts and location.”

Mr Saka said Turkey’s record on media freedom highlighted concerns. It ranked 154th out of 180 countries in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index.

“Turkey is one of the biggest jailers of journalists so it’s quite legitimate for them to be concerned,” he said. “Just a few years ago people didn’t want to use Signal because they were worried about being accused of using technology that terrorists use.”

Even the pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper on Tuesday warned of the dangers of using BiP, which columnist Ismail Kilicarslan said “promises us a ‘police state’ regarding both our personal data and our private space”.

One Twitter user joked that choosing BiP would result in “giving all your data straight to the AKP” – a reference to Turkey’s ruling party.

Moving towards the China model?

In recent years, messaging apps have become an especially sensitive subject in Turkey. After a failed coup in 2016, many people were jailed merely for having the ByLock app, which was used by the group Ankara blamed for the attempted overthrow.

In the fight to nationalise social media, the Turk Telekom-owned Yaay platform was launched in September to allow content sharing. However, its regulations raised fears over free speech on the platform.

According to Yaay’s term and conditions, posts against the “interests of our country” are prohibited and the content, IP address and sharing information can be “given to the competent authorities when required”.

Illustrating the online dangers in Turkey, the Citizen Lab, a Toronto-based project that monitors internet surveillance, found that Turk Telecom’s network was being used to target users with spyware, including programs sold only to governments.

“Turkey is moving towards the China model, excluding international services and pushing national services,” Mr Saka said. “Turkey is not as sophisticated as China in creating these services but they might ask not just for the Chinese [coronavirus] vaccine but also some surveillance software.”

Meanwhile, Turkey’s competition authority announced an investigation into WhatsApp over its sharing data with Facebook and called for the new terms of use to be suspended pending the outcome.

Turkey recently introduced a law forcing social media companies to establish an office in the country and make user information available to the authorities. Facebook is among the companies to so far refuse, facing fines and possible bandwidth restrictions.

Updated: January 13, 2021 04:35 PM

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