To avoid being banned throughout Turkey, Facebookhas blocked Turkish users’ access to a number of pages containing content that the authorities had deemed insulting to the Prophet Muhammad, according to a company employee with direct knowledge of the matter and a report by the state broadcaster TRT.
The company acted to comply with an order from a Turkish court, the employee said on Monday, speaking on the condition of anonymity because Facebook had not authorized the employee to speak publicly. The court order was issued late Sunday at the request of a local prosecutor in Ankara, the capital.
Turkey’s Islamist government has not hesitated to temporarily cut off access to services like Twitter and YouTube for various political reasons, and it often intervenes to restrict content it finds objectionable, despite strong criticism from the West on freedom-of-speech grounds.
Like many American technology companies, Facebook, which has more than 1.2 billion users around the world, has been pushing hard for growth in emerging markets like Turkey. It tends to focus on its mobile services in such countries, because most Internet users in the developing world view content on cellphones rather than on computers.
This strategy has sometimes entangled the social network in turbulent political situations, as when activists used Facebook to organize during the Arab Spring protests. And the approach has frequently led the company to bump up against governments that try to restrict online content for political or social reasons.
Though the Turkish prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, went to Paris this month to express solidarity after the deadly terrorist attack on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, he returned promising government action against the kind of material that Charlie Hebdo was attacked for publishing, including depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, which many Muslims consider blasphemous.
Two weeks ago, prosecutors began an inquiry into Cumhuriyet, a Turkish newspaper, and two of its writers after it reprinted a selection of items from Charlie Hebdo’s first issue following the attacks, including a cover illustration of Muhammad.
The government blocked Twitter and YouTube last March after the posting of leaked information that appeared to detail senior officials’ discussions of plans for military action in Syria, and of audio recordings that seemed to imply corruption among figures in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s close circle. It took Twitter two weeks, and YouTube two months, to get the blocks lifted.
Turkish officials also threatened to shut down Twitter in the country this month unless it blocked the account of a local newspaper that had circulated documents about a police raid on Turkish Intelligence Agency trucks traveling to Syria.
“In comparison with Twitter and YouTube, Facebook cooperates with the Turkish authorities much better,” said Yaman Akdeniz, a cyberlaw professor at Bilgi University in Istanbul. “Therefore, it’s not surprising that Facebook removed these pages right away.”
The company’s most recent public report on compliance with government requests covers the first half of 2014. In that time, Facebook said, India asked the company to block almost 5,000 pieces of online content, the most of any country. Turkey was second, with nearly 1,900 pieces of content blocked at the government’s request, and Pakistan was third, at more than 1,700.
Facebook said that Turkish officials asked for details about local users of the service 249 times in the first half of 2014, and that the company complied in about three-fifths of the cases.