Turkey at the Edge

The people of Turkey are facing a stark choice: will they continue to have a mostly free and open Internet, or will they join the two dozen states around the world that filter the content that their citizens see?

Over the past two days, I’ve been here in Turkey to talk about our new book (written by the whole OpenNet Initiative team), called Access Denied. The book describes the growth of Internet filtering around the world, from only about 2 states in 2002 to more than 2 dozen in 2007. I’ve been welcomed by many serious, smart people in Ankara and Istanbul, Turkey, who are grappling with this issue, and to whom I’ve handed over a copy of the new book — the first copies I’ve had my hands on.

This question for Turkey runs deep, it seems, from what I’m hearing. As it has been described to me, the state is on the knife’s edge, between one world and another, just as Istanbul sits, on the Bosporus, at the juncture between “East and West.”

Our maps of state-mandated Internet filtering on the ONI site describe Turkey’s situation graphically. The majority of those states that filter the net extensively lie to its east and south; its neighbors in Europe filter the Internet, though much more selectively (Nazi paraphernalia in Germany and France, e.g., and child pornography in northern Europe; in the U.S., we certainly filter at the PC level in schools and libraries, though not on a state-mandated basis at the level of publicly-accessible ISPs). It’s not that there are no Internet restrictions in the states in Europe and North America, nor that these places necessarily have it completely right (we don’t). It’s both the process for removing harmful material, the technical approach that keeps the content from viewers (or stops publishers from posting it), and the scale of information blockages that differs. We’ll learn a lot from how things turn out here in Turkey in the months to come.

An open Internet brings with it many wonderful things: access to knowledge, more voices telling more stories from more places, new avenues for free expression and association, global connections between cultures, and massive gains in productivity and innovation. The web 2.0 era, with more people using participatory media, brings with it yet more of these positive things.

Widespread use of the Internet also gives rise to challenging content along with its democratic and economic gains. As Turkey looks ahead toward the day when they join the European Union once and for all, one of the many policy questions on the national agenda is whether and how to filter the Internet. There is sensitivity around content of various sorts: criticism of the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk; gambling; and obscenity top the list. The parliament passed a law earlier in 2007 that gives a government authority a broad mandate to filter content of this sort from the Internet. To date, I’m told, about 10 orders have been issued by this authority, and an additional 40 orders by a court to filter content. The process is only a few months old; much remains to be learned about how this law, known as “5651,” will be implemented over time.

The most high-profile filtering has been of the popular video-sharing site, YouTube. Twice in the past few months, the authority has sent word to the 73 or so Turkish ISPs to block access, at the domain level, to all of YouTube. These blocks have been issued in response to complaints about videos posted to YouTube that were held to be derogatory toward the founder, Ataturk. The blocks have lasted about 72 hours.

After learning from the court of the offending videos, YouTube has apparently removed them, and the service has been subsequently restored. YouTube has been perfectly accessible on the connections I’ve had in Istanbul and Ankara in the past few days.

During this trip, I’ve been hosted by the Internet Association here, known as TBD, and others who have helped to set up meetings with many people — in industry, in government, in journalism, and in academia — who are puzzling over this issue. The challenges of this new law, 5651, are plain:

- The law gives very broad authority to filter the net. It places this power in a single authority, as well as in the courts. It is unclear how broadly the law will be implemented. If the authority is well-meaning, as it seems to me to be, the effect of the law may be minimal; if that perspective changes, the effect of the law could be dramatic.

- The blocks are (so far) done at the domain level, it would appear. In other words, instead of blocking a single URL, the blocks affect entire domains. Many other states take this approach, probably for cost or efficiency reasons. Many states in the Middle East/North Africa have blocked entire blogging services at different times, for instance.

- The system in place requires Internet services to register themselves with the Turkish authorities in order to get word of the offending URLs. This requirement is not something that many multinational companies are going to be able or willing to do, for cost and jurisdictional issues. Instead of a notice-and-takedown regimes for these out-of-state players, there’s a system of shutting down the service and restoring it only after the offending content has been filtered out.

* * *

The Internet – especially in its current phase of development – is making possible innovation and creativity in terms of content. Today, simple technology platforms like weblogs, social networks, and video-sharing sites are enabling individuals to have greater voice in their societies. These technologies are also giving rise to the creation of new art forms, like the remix and the mash-up of code and content. Many of those who are making use of this ability to create and share new digital works are young people – those born in a digital era, with access to high-speed networks and blessed with terrific computing skills, called “digital natives” – but many digital creators are grown-ups, even professionals.

Turkey is not alone in how it is facing this challenge. The threat of “too much” free expression online is leading to more Internet censorship in more places around the world than ever before. When we started studying Internet censorship five years ago, along with our colleagues in the OpenNet Initiative (from the Universities of Toronto, Cambridge, and Oxford, as well as Harvard Law School), there were a few places – like China and Saudi Arabia – where the Internet was censored.

Since then, there’s been a sharp rise in online censorship, and its close cousin, surveillance. About three dozen countries in the world restrict access to Internet content in one way or another. Most famously, in China, the government runs the largest censorship regime in the world, blocking access to political, social, and cultural critique from its citizens. So do Iran, Uzbekistan, and others in their regions. The states that filter the Internet most extensively are primarily in East Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and Central Asia.

* * *

Turkey’s choice couldn’t be clearer. Does one choose to embrace the innovation and creativity that the Internet brings with it, albeit along with some risk of people doing and saying harmful things? Or does one start down the road of banning entire zones of the Internet, whether online Web sites or new technologies like peer-to-peer services or live videoblogging?

In Turkey, the Internet has been largely free to date from government controls. Free expression and innovation have found homes online, in ways that benefit culture and the economy.

But there are signs that this freedom may be nearing its end in Turkey, through 5651 and how it is implemented. These changes come just as the benefits to be reaped are growing. When the state chooses to ban entire services for the many because of the acts of the few, the threat to innovation and creativity is high. Those states that have erected extensive censorship and surveillance regimes online have found them hard to implement with any degree of accuracy and fairness. And, more costly, the chilling effect on citizens who rely on the digital world for their livelihood and key aspects of their culture – in fact, the ability to remake their own cultural objects, the notion of semiotic democracy – is a high price to pay for control.

The impact of the choice Turkey makes in the months to come will be felt over decades and generations. Turkey’s choice also has international ramifications. If Turkey decides to clamp down on Internet activity, it will be lending aid to those who seek to see the Internet chopped into a series of local networks – the China Wide Web, the Iran Wide Web, and so forth – rather than continuing to build a truly World Wide Web.

9 thoughts on “Turkey at the Edge

  1. Thanks for this, John. But I wonder why this needs to be introduced — para 3 — in binary terms: east/west. The ease with which we can employ the binary — in the figure of the Bosphorus here — should give us pause because its logic drags along with it a whole chain of political and historical reductions (progress, civilization, etc.) that, at best, cloud the issues and, at worst, reinscribe precisely the regionalization you seem to want to resist in your final paragraph.

  2. Hi John
    I am delighted to know that you are in Istanbul and Turkey is under the spotlight of the Berkman’s, finally , very happy regarding this great very important development. The conference and your leadership is much appreciated.
    H20 has been one the best tools for us to manage the e-trasformation project of Turkey and I have requested new members as well as insight on the topic from existing project members.
    With all the very best wishes for us all
    I remain Sincerely
    Nihat

  3. Of course, it is a high price to pay for control online content for citizen see. China need time to change a little and a little because the government and the citizen both need time to grow up as a reasonable citizen. If there is no censorship and surveillance regimes both online and offline, there must be appear many dummy messages which will make citizens lose their judgment. Could you give some good advice to China? Yours respect.

  4. [...] John Palfrey ‽ Blog Archive ‽ Turkey at the Edge John Palfrey takes a close look at the questions Turkey faces regarding censorship of the internet – he sees Turkey as being at the cusp between parts of the world that filter extensively, and parts that have largely resisted filtering (tags: ONI berkman filtering censorship internet) [...]

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