ISTANBUL — When Turkey’s embattled Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan blocked Twitter last week, Deniz Oktar, a 29-year-old CEO and co-founder of two tech startups, was more than a little worried. And after the government moved to block YouTube on Thursday, citing national security concerns, Oktar says he began to fear the worst.
“I found my last client from Twitter,” he said, sitting in his eclectic office on Yildiz Technical University’s campus, where a slew of other technology companies are based. “What happens if Google is blocked? What happens if the Internet is taken down?”
Oktar is one of an increasing number of young tech entrepreneurs in Turkey. He employs a small team, made up mostly of young Turks, that provides software development services to companies in the United States. His latest client is a Boston-based startup from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
For years, Turkey has tried to foster a space for tech innovation, providing support in the form of small loans and national research grants. Some of Oktar’s own work is funded through such a grant. In 2012, President Abdullah Gul spent time in Silicon Valley courting Twitter, Microsoft and the like. Gul has also boasted that a new Apple store set to open in Istanbul in April will “attract worldwide attention.” But recent moves by Erdogan and his government could stunt the country’s startup scene and scare off foreign investors from tech companies, analysts say.
“Undoubtedly foreign investors are very scared by what is happening,” said Bayram Balci, a visiting scholar on Turkey at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Turkey was an island of stability before the Gezi Park [anti-government] protests, but now what we see is that Turkey is no longer the stable market it was.”
This is the “beginning of something serious,” he added.
Erdogan launched a war against Twitter last week in an attempt to stop leaks of recordings that allegedly implicate him in a massive corruption scandal. One of the recordings appears to show Erdogan telling his son to hide millions of dollars in cash. He then moved to block YouTube on Thursday after a recording surfaced of Turkish officials reportedly discussing possible military operations in neighboring Syria. Turkey’s role in the civil war remains a contentious issue, with many saying Erdogan is supporting hardline Islamist rebels within Turkey’s borders.
The reported YouTube ban comes just days before municipal elections on Sunday, which are widely seen as a referendum on Erdogan’s political party that has ruled for 11 years.
“Twitter…mwitter,” Erdogan said in front of thousands of his supporters last week. “I don’t care what the international community says. Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic.”
Turkey’s 10 million Twitter users are still finding ways to access the site through domain name servers (DNS) and virtual private networks (VPN). Yet there is a pervasive fear about the government’s mentality that social media and technology are the “enemy.” On Thursday, Turkey’s foreign minister said the leaked recordings were a “declaration of war” against the country.
Erdogan accuses Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric who lives in the United States and has a huge international following, of trying to undermine his rule by leaking what he says are forged videos and recordings. The battle between the two former allies has caused a dramatic political rift between their supporters and fueled divides among Turks throughout the country. The tumult is causing some foreign investors to shy away from Turkey, according to experts and entrepreneurs.
Sevin Ekinci, a Turkish economist who regularly consults foreigners looking to invest in Turkey, said that if she was a foreign investor, she wouldn’t put her money into a company here.
“Banning Twitter is an extreme roulette card,” she said. “My expectation is things will get worse.”
While explaining how the social media bans are affecting the tech scene in Turkey, Oktar referenced one particular post from Hacker News, an online forum popular in the startup community.
“I was there on business in 2010 and I said ‘Man, this is a country on the move! We need to set up an office here,’” the thread began, explaining why Turkey had the perfect cocktail for a booming tech scene. “Things have fallen apart so quickly since then,” the post continued. “Wouldn’t touch it now.”
But it’s not just the Twitter and YouTube bans that worry Oktar. “When there are protests, none of my employees are here,” he said, referring to recent anti-government demonstrations. “Stability is very important. Clients who we are currently working with trust us enough that this is not going to be a major problem. However, new clients who do not know us are very concerned.”
Oktar said that his Internet connection, like that of many Turks, has recently been slower than usual with more glitches — and he doesn’t think this is a coincidence. As the government goes after social media sites, rumors are running wild that the Internet will be slowed drastically or shut down altogether.
Fast Internet is essential for his work, he said, and without it, everyday tasks like connecting with clients in the United States via video chat become difficult, costing him time and money. Many companies, he continued, are also having trouble getting Google Analytics to run on their websites, an important tool used for tracking things like how many people have looked at a site.
Now, his team is discussing alternative ways to access the Internet.
“I’m spending time thinking about this and I shouldn’t have to,” he said. “It’s absurd.”
“Maybe Turkey will be the next generation of tech geniuses because we’ll all be so tech savvy,” he added, laughing at the irony. “Even my mom knows what a VPN is.”