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Turkey Throttled Social Media During Coup In ‘Evolution’ of Internet Censorship

Turkey has a new approach to censorship.

A coup by "factions" of the Turkish military is underway, and social media sites including Facebook and Twitter are being slowed to a crawl inside the country, according to Dyn Research, a company that tracks the state of the global internet. YouTube is also reportedly down in Turkey, although Dyn could not confirm this.

An hour after Dyn Research confirmed the throttling, the company confirmed that the throttle was apparently turned off.

The latest block represents an "evolution" in how Turkey censors its internet, according to Doug Madory, of Dyn Research. While the government previously blocked access to sites at the Domain Name System (DNS) level, users could easily circumvent the blocks by using another DNS service. By throttling traffic to social media sites instead of blocking them wholesale, the effect is the same but much more difficult to get around or even detect, Madory said.

"They're slowing down the traffic, not to zero, but enough that people can't use it, and the end result is that they're blocking access to it," Madory said. "Older blocks were very concrete and reproducible, but this requires a little more sophistication to confirm that traffic is being throttled."

"It's a more sophisticated approach"

"If they're actually doing something like analyzing the traffic to see if people are accessing Facebook, it's a more sophisticated approach and they can be more effective in preventing people from getting around it," he said.

Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Turkey is well-known as a censorious country when it comes to freedom of speech online, and the platforms that facilitate it. In 2014 Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan blocked access to Twitter and YouTube in an effort to quell criticism by his opponents. In April, the government blocked all three sites until they removed images of an Istanbul prosecutor who was killed. More recently, the government blocked access to Facebook and Twitter after suicide attackers opened fire in Istanbul's airport.

"People in Turkey will need access to information and, if there is violence, access to emergency services—all of which depend on stable communications channels," Deji Olukotun of digital rights group Access said in an emailed statement. "To protect human rights, authorities should keep social media and the internet on."

The country is ranked 151 on the Reporters Without Borders 2016 Press Freedom Index due to harassment of journalists and "systematic censorship" of the internet. For the first six months of 2015, more than 70 percent of government takedown requests issued to Twitter came from Turkey. The country asked for ten times the number of takedowns as the next most aggressive censor, Russia.

Much of what we know about the coup has come in the form of images, video, and other dispatches posted to social media as journalists attempt to learn more. Unfortunately, the censorship of these sites limits the ability of those inside the country to spread information about the crisis.

Social media users in the country may attempt to subvert the block by using a VPN or the Tor browser, which would allow them to appear as though they are browsing from a country other than Turkey.

Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai contributed reporting.

UPDATE 5:58 PM EST: This article has been updated to include new information that traffic throttling in Turkey appears to have ceased for the moment.