When Turkey launched its Afrin offensive in early 2018 to dislodge Kurdish minorities from Northern Syria, the country ordered Facebook to block the page of a prominent militia group in the area known as the People’s Protection Units or YPG. Forced to make a decision, the company prioritized staying online over objecting to censorship, new internal emails obtained by show.
Since then, the social media giant has blocked users in Turkey from accessing the YPG’s Facebook page. Facebook complied with the order even though, like the US government, it does not consider the group a terrorist organization.
“... We are in favor of geo-blocking YPG content if the prospects of a full-service blockage are great,” the team that accessed the situation wrote to Joel Kaplan, the company’s vice-president of global public policy. “Geo-blocking the YPG is not without risk — activists outside of Turkey will likely notice our actions, and our decision may draw unwanted attention to our overall geo-blocking policy.”
The subsequent discussion was short. When Kaplan told Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and CEO Mark Zuckerberg he agreed with the recommendation, Sandberg sent a single-sentence response. “I am fine with this,” she said.
When asked about the emails, Facebook confirmed it blocked the page after it received a legal order from the Turkish government. “We strive to preserve voice for the greatest number of people. There are, however, times when we restrict content based on local law even if it does not violate our community standards,” Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone told ProPublica. “In this case, we made the decision based on our policies concerning government requests to restrict content and our international human rights commitments. Publicly, Facebook has also said free speech is one of its core tenets. “We believe freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, and we work hard to protect and defend these values around the world,” it said in a recent blog post on Turkey.
In many ways, the story of Facebook's YPG ban is one of poor transparency. In the same above statement, the company noted it discloses content restrictions in its biannual transparency reports. However, YPG isn’t explicitly mentioned on the section of its website it has . And if you try to visit the group’s page through a Turkish server using a VPN, the only error message you will see is one that says, “the link may be broken, or the page may have been removed.”