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In Istanbul, Derision And Defiance At Erdogan's Threat To Ban Facebook, YouTube

Buket Kaya, a student at Istanbul University, calls the suggested ban on Facebook and YouTube "stupid."
Buket Kaya, a student at Istanbul University, calls the suggested ban on Facebook and YouTube "stupid."
ISTANBUL -- On Istiklal Street, a bustling pedestrian thoroughfare in central Istanbul, it's common for people to walk with their heads down as they tap away at their smartphones.

So strong is the social media addiction that at Crab Pub one night here in early March, a local musician continued tweeting during breaks in the vocals as he performed his set.

So it's not surprising that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's admission that he will consider banning Facebook and YouTube following March 30 municipal elections has been met with dismay from young Istanbul residents.

"I'm not happy, but there's nothing we can do about it," says Adam, a 21-year-old university student who asked not to provide his last name.

"The young people are going to say it's wrong, we're going to take it back, but everything will be the same."

Erdogan's revelation, in an interview with ATV, a private television channel, follows a month in which bombshell audio recordings of alleged conversations between the prime minister and associates have been posted on a near daily basis on YouTube.

A video in which Erdogan purportedly tells his son, Bilal, to hide as much as $1 billion in cash, has been viewed almost 5 million times.

Erdogan says the tapes are fabricated or edited "montages" of his conversations, and has accused his political rivals of abusing social media to tarnish him.

He says the recordings are the work of a "parallel state" being run by followers of his former political ally and exiled political leader Fethullah Gulen.

"Believe me, some of my friends and I -- and I'm not talking about all of them -- are very determined. We cannot make this nation a victim of YouTube, Facebook etc," Erdogan said.

'Where Would I Get My News?'

In Beyazit Square, outside Istanbul University, Buket Kaya, a 22 year-old geography student who says her friends shared information about Erdogan's recording scandal through Facebook, says shutting down social networks would be "stupid."

"I don't personally have time to watch TV, so I get all my information from social networks. Where would I get my news if I didn't have these accounts? If my friends didn't share gossip, news, and phone recordings on social networks?" Kaya says.

"I think Turkey will [again] find new ways of surviving this shut down," she adds, referring to a previous ban on YouTube.

The video-sharing service was barred in 2008 following a complaint over videos that were said to insult Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the revered founder of modern Turkey. It was reinstated by Turkish courts in 2010.

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan says the tapes are fabricated.
Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan says the tapes are fabricated.

In February, as the first audio recordings began to appear on YouTube, the ruling Justice and Development (AKP) party passed legislation that would strengthen state Internet controls and allow authorities to shut down websites without a court order.

The legislation touched off protests in Istanbul and Ankara that were largely contained by riot police using water cannons, rubber bullets, and tear gas.

But 30-year-old Ertan Sarigul says an actual ban on YouTube and Facebook would cause an uproar larger than the massive street demonstrations over a construction project that regularly drew tens of thousands of people out on Taksim Square for several weeks last year.

"It will be much worse than before," he says. "This kind of news we can get only from social networks."

President Abdullah Gul, an Erdogan ally, signed the Internet law, but says he will not sign legislation to ban Facebook and YouTube.

A closure "is out of the question," he told reporters on March 7, responding to Erdogan's remarks.

"Platforms like YouTube and Facebook are worldwide platforms. Their closure is out of the question. Authorities could block access to material on such sites if a person's privacy is violated," Gul says.
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    Glenn Kates

    Glenn Kates is the former managing editor for digital at Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. He now reports for RFE/RL as a freelancer. 

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