Since the protests in Gezi Park eight months ago freedom of expression has coming under increasing attack, both on and offline. A new law now threatens digital civil society further, handing the government excessive and arbitrary power to monitor the web.
There was an air of déjà vu in the scene: The Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, arguing to the media that his country is dedicated to peace and order while riot police equipped with plastic bullets and water cannons confront protesters on the streets of Turkey’s cities. This time the demonstrators were protesting the new internet law, just passed by the parliament and waiting for ratification by President Abdullah Gül. Whether it passes the final hurdle or not, the debates about the law provide a good way to understand Turkish society and political developments in digital culture.
Despite the grim international statistics counting the dozens of journalists jailed (up to 70, ahead of China), leading party politicians continue to insist that Turkey is free from censorship. The Turkish government claims to be dedicated to freedom of the press and internet; Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc stated there was "no such thing as internet censorship in Turkey”, echoing earlier statements by other politicians, including President Gül. The new internet legislation has immediately been flagged as disastrous to the digital civil society of Turkey and reflects Prime Minister Erdoğan’s hostile comments about Twitter in the midst of Gezi protests: social media is a menace.
Claims by Arinc and others about the absence of censorship set the government activities and the internet legislation in an odd light, spurring sarcastic comments from both writers and internet activists. A cynicism towards the inconsistent statements by leading politicians characterises the political affect in large parts of the population. In terms of this particular case, the cynicism comes with a rather frightening prospect. The law after all gives a tight control to the government to arbitrarily decide what it might deem to be an internet violation of privacy.
Tracking present and future dissent
In short, experts suspect that the updated law 5651 is merely a tool for increased surveillance and politically motivated tracking down of dissident voices. After all, an earlier law from 2007 was found to breach the European Convention on Human Rights. The new law “from now and on be used for political reasons to block access to so called damaging videos or to block access to leaked documents.”
The new law moves beyond the DNS (Domain Name System) and IP based censorship to URL-based censorship. This means that the government and ISPs have to engage in deep packet inspection on the user activities. Internet Service Providers (ISP) are expected to follow direct request from the Telecommunications Communication Presidency (TİB), a body tied to the prime minister’s office and can easily be directed. Furthermore, the new law allows the head of the TIB to personally decide which websites to censor without a court order. The internet law also provides the head with specific powers of exemption without an external check on power. The Prime Minister could call TİB and ask to cut access to certain websites in under four hours.
The possibilities of control extend to the future: service providers are expected keep a record of internet activities of users for up to two years. Besides the political advantage to AKP now, it gives a huge mandate to any future governments who will be able to benefit from an unprecedented level of authority when it comes to online activities of the citizens.
The Turkish Pirate Party (Korsan Parti) voiced several concerns early on, citing citizen journalism and independent media as hardest hit. It summarised the issues, from new forms of URL blocking to the broad formulation of the rights given to the authorities to survey and intervene. Service providers are harnessed as tools of government surveillance with fears of targeted actions against certain groups, individuals and themes. One of the leading NGOs on the topic, Alternative Informatics Association, has been actively publishing information to raise awareness and advocating Internet freedom and fighting against the new law.
Besides acknowledging that the law moves Turkey further from the EU, it also places the country (again) in the same league as China, Iran, Syria and Saudi-Arabia. Furthermore, the new Internet law violates net neutrality, a concept that in some ways is equal to the concept of separation of the legislative and executive that has to be in place in any democratic governance scheme. Paradoxically, this separation has been already diminished in Turkey over the past months of aftereffects following the corruption scandals in December 17, 2013.
In a way, the increase in internet surveillance and security measures is an extension of the state paranoia of the past months about external influences and internal forces working against it. According to the government, the list of conspirators was long and included the US, EU, Lufthansa, BBC, The Guardian, Israel and many others. Now the law passes on that paranoia with the open mandate: you cannot be 100% sure that your online activity is not illegal – and this internalised paranoia extends to future as well, knowing your movements are archived for two years. One could say that the law follows logically from the past seven, eight months of political events in Turkey, starting from the Gezi Park protest that spread across the country.
Ahmet Sabanci’s Goodbye to the Internet letter poetically flagged a frightening shift from the Internet as we know it to the “Turkey narrow web” highlights the increasing its commercial and hierarchical nature of digital space in Turkey now. Defenders argue that the new law is good for privacy and good for business. This explains such headlines as the one in the pro-government newspaper Sabah: “New Internet Law Paves the Way for Popular Websites to Come to Turkey”. From the recent strong-worded attacks by the prime minister against Twitter and social media, the article marks the shift in rhetorics: “One of the most important features of the law is that it will pave the way for popular websites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to make investments in Turkey.”
After all, despite the past months of certain PR catastrophes due their accusatory tones against foreign governments and certain corporations, the Turkish government is similar to other economically motivated bodies that have picked up on the digital economy-mantra. The government is trying to establish closer ties with international digital corporations in Silicon Valley and nationally create a commercially booming internet and digital services economy. Groups such as The Turkish Industry and Business Association have expressed concern about the law and its implications for the investment environment of the country. Despite objections, the government is trying to push through its vision of a docile internet sphere rhetorically sold through the notion of “safety”.
Commercializing internet freedom
This idea of digital Turkey is one of commercial services and digital business. It also extends the urban planning logic of the government online: the internet becomes understood as a shopping mall. As has been demonstrated, the urban transformation projects have resulted in mass violence against the right to public common space as well as a dispossession of people from their neighbourhoods. The corruption of the construction business in which the government is involved has recently been debated publicly, and with activist projects such as Networks of Dispossession people have been able to demonstrate the critical links between corporations and the government.
Network map of disposession from Networks of Disposession. Disposession projects are in black; corporations in blue; work related crimes connected in red; supporters of Turkey's Olympic bid in purple; Istanbul biennial supports in turquoise. Click to enlarge.
Similarly the internet law extends such a dubious logic of governance to the online sphere without checks on power. It becomes easily prone to corruption and can lead to a monopolized internet ecosystem. It will be interesting to follow up what sort of contracts will be set up for the Internet infrastructure providers – the construction businesses of the internet, to put it metaphorically. Already from the beginning, the proposed law requires the ISPs to join a new mandatory coalition of ISPs formed by the government. It is possible that not every ISP will be able to join because of membership fees or other state requirements, feeding towards a concentration of economic and technological power in internet infrastructure.
This law is also a tool for guiding net behaviour and can, in the worst case, lead to a dispossession of various civil rights as well as to a reality in which specific commercial platforms, services and most of all consumer activities are where people feel “safe”. However, as we know from the business models of various online corporations, the feeling of privacy and safety can be exploited through data trail gathering (“big data”) as well as exploitation of immaterial micro-labor. Or in the case of security, inconspicuous surveillance towards other ends.
Hence this new law might just work to sanction corporate commercial internet zones as the place of desired internet behaviour; the security of online consumption or data trail. It’s what we have discussed for a while in network politics; the internet is increasingly becoming structured hierarchically along the one-way model of ‘sender-to-receiver` like a television – but to specify: a television surveilled and controlled by the security-police regime of the state. As such, it tells the story of both Turkey’s current political regime and the contemporary entertainment internet capitalism.
Of course, also for instance political opinion sharing might happen increasingly on platforms such as Facebook, though this remains to be seen. The ideal internet user for the Turkish government is still just a variation of the TV-viewer: consuming via sanctified channel prefiltered content. The idea of active P2P-networks is not part of the old-fashioned ideal of the government’s internet vision. The government’s policy is still geared towards consumption of technology instead of promotion active grassroots production of it. The AKP government’s internet economy policy is stuck in thinking the online sphere as a place of consumption, rather than space for civic expression which on the streets of Turkey was met with teargas and plastic bullets. Now online these expressions are being tackled with new legislative and technical means of policing.
On March 5, 2011 President Gül tweeted to his millions of followers that "A closed regime cannot survive given the power of new technologies." It was an attempt to try to differentiate Turkey from having the brand of anti-internet. The message was after all tweeted around the period of the Arab Spring, branded internationally as the social media revolution. The smart political move of riding the wave of Arab spring was gradually realised as a model grew of channelling internet freedom could be channelled into securitized commercial spaces. Censorship is a part of surveillance, which is by-product of the control regimes that are themselves part of the intersection of capitalist privatization, commercialization and governance through “security” that have dominated the post-9/11 regime of ‘security’.
Beside the tightening laws, a strong culture of online activism and everyday digital resistance has emerged. People in Turkey are increasingly using open platforms, ensuring encryption in their communication, with VPN in their access as well as acting as a distributed flock of whistle-blowers finding effective ways of disseminating leaks to masses. There is already a strong feedback loop between the Internet and the street in Turkey, and that hybrid combination will still survive despite the law. The urban transformation projects gathered widespread resistance and similarly the attempts to curb online freedom are expected to result in on and offline activism. It means an increased political consciousness about the internet and software at the centre of political struggles.