Turkey : a fatal blow to internet ?

Anybody still doubting that Turkey is not an internet friendly country ? Telling figures are piling up. According to the website www.engelliweb.org, 40 733 websites have been blocked to date. 89.4% of the blockades were not based on a decision of justice but followed orders issued by the Communication Authority, the TIB. The same website recorded a dramatic surge in the number of blockades in the aftermath of the Gezi movement that shook the country last June. Similarly, in the last Google transparency report, Turkey is ranking first for the numbers of items requested to be removed . In such an ominous environment, and against the backdrop of a massive corruption scandal leaked online, it is no wonder that internet users and digital NGOs vigorously reacted to the recent passing of a new internet bill which, they contend, is merely a tool designed to enhance the mapping of users’ browsing activities hence serving political intelligence purposes. To better apprehend the context in which this text was adopted and its foreseeable consequences, we talked to Gürkan Özturan, the Korsan Parti’s (Pirate Party of Turkey) Spokesperson Responsible for International Communication.(1)

Context : A frenzy of online leaks weighing down the prime minister

Source : http://www.bobiler.org/n.asp?id=6395&nee=_guzideler#devam729144

Last December, Turkey has been hit by a large-scale corruption scandal. Phone calls recordings allegedly substantiating bribery and corruption in public tenders surfaced online. Although the leaks initially involved businessmen and governments members or relatives, in everybody’s mind they were ultimately targeting the Prime Minister and the ruling party. Pushed against the wall, and to avoid the devastating consequences of those allegations, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan initiated various moves to reshuffle and muzzled up major institutions, such as the police, justice and secret services. A series of provisions lost (hidden?) in a ‘sack bill’ related to family issues also featured among the controversial measures swiftly adopted by the Parliament in February. Meant to tighten the state’s grip on internet, these provisions sparked street protests and public campaigns.   In a country where the “purchase of a newspaper (by a private company) is merely a bribe, a tax, or a down payment for getting contracts for other businesses” , where there is quasi monopole on information held by government controlled media, the new internet ‘law’ indeed raises major concerns about the future of free and independent media who had recently no other option but to migrate to the web.

The recent internet law has been alternatively described as a panic-driven damage control measure taken by the government to cover up a massive corruption scandal, as a tool to muzzle up social networks which proved effective in mobilizing the crowds during the Gezi uprising; and as part of a wider agenda to install a surveillance society. Which suggestion is the most relevant ?

It is actually a combination of the three reasons. First, the law was obviously voted in a rush, with almost no debate. The opposition even called us to ask for advice. They did not understand and had no time to study the implications of the bill.

Secondly, if I remember well, the bill has been drafted and appeared online before the outbreak of the corruption scandal. In 2007 and 2011 when previous internet bills were introduced in parliament, mass demonstrations were organized and restrictive provisions similar to those voted at the beginning of the month were shelved. So, this can be viewed as an indication that the recent law might be the ultimate attempt to shape an older scheme. Unfortunately this time. the government did not bowed to the street. Last fall, we also heard rumors alleging that a foreign secret agency was helping the government to install a new surveillance software which was meant to be active by mid-February. This coincides with the date when the bill was approved. Strangely enough, last fall internet went down for 20 minutes throughout Turkey. No proper explanation was given. We are still wondering whether this blackout was signaling the start of the software installation.

But more importantly, a threshold of fear has been surpassed with Gezi. Gezi was like losing one’s virginity. Once you tasted it, you cannot stop. Likewise, once you tasted freedom, there is no going back. So now the authorities probably want to instill the feeling that the State’s breath is on our neck. The new law creates the feeling that you are being watched in every step you take online. It discourages people to browse material that the government doesn’t like. However we entered a new stage, people are not afraid anymore. Last night. (25 February), less than 24 hours after a new leak (directly involving the PM), mass protests erupted in 10 major cities.

How would you qualify this new piece of legislation ? Internet control or censorship ?

By definition, censorship is blocking publication that contains information before it gets published. In the 21st century, this equates to blocking information before it reaches full penetration into the web. Therefore blocking information within the 4 hours following its uploading is definitively censorship. Consequently, according to us, the whole package should go to the bin. Besides this law is a sheer waste of money : some people are employed to censor unharmful information.

The signing of the law raised serious concern in the EU. How do judged EU attitude towards Turkey on this particular question ?

EU failed to put enough pressure. I don’t see the EU paying much attention to Turkish politics. They did not realized that it will take us years to get rid of such a legal framework and one generation to get rid of the mentality it will create. The damage caused to the country by AKP the last 5 years will remain with us for decades. But the problem is also linked with the fact that Turkey did not sign the Council of Europe Convention on protection of personal data. Besides the constitution does not guarantee that protection either, so that the law can be used for profiling people.

Some EU countries have also adopted internet regulation laws that sparked controversy. What differentiates those from the Turkish one ?

The intention mainly. In the EU, surveillance is the major issue, not so much censorship. EU member states are after extreme right wings movements inciting to hatred, they try to prevent violence and pedophilia. In Turkey, the State is after any kind of opposition. That explains why the internet legislation is based on the anti-terror law. And since the definition of terrorism is so elusive, everyone in Turkey might get into trouble. In fact, the anti-terror law is almost the ideal constitution for a government ! One day, the Prime Minister said ’some books are more explosive than bombs’. We are somehow witnessing the resurgence of the ‘thinking criminals’, a notion that appeared in the 90s. Accused of ‘thinking crimes’ intellectuals were jailed simply because there were thinking differently than the government. So the situation is not much different now (under anti-terror law) except there is a bigger (pool of potential terrorists) because there are more communication means. Today any kind of citizen can be concerned.

In Turkey, we have a major censorship problem. No government seems to be tolerant of the free flow of information. Thousands of books have been forbidden for decades. Newspaper are getting banned. So it does not only concerns internet. The AKP government stands in the continuity of previous eras characterized by a military mentality. Only the government’s face has changed, it is now a more religious-oriented one, not its stance. The AKP claims to be more liberal. However their liberal attitude is only referring to the market, not to social issues.

In your views, what would be an acceptable framework for internet control ?

For internet ‘regulation’, not control ! Prior to adopting an internet law, a bill guaranteeing people’s privacy should be voted and the Council of Europe Convention on data protection should be ratified. Then another child protection law (protection against child labor, prostitution, pedophilia, abuse…) free from any internet provisions should be drafted. Finally any internet law should be ridden of ‘catalogue crimes’ such as gambling, and terrorism acts. Such crimes are already listed and punished by the penal code or the anti-terror law. So there is no need for anti-terrorism law to be integrated in internet law as it is now. Any internet law should be only about internet, very specific and basic: it should aim at preventing hatred, violence and racism.

Given the very nature of the web, is it realistic to believe that such a law can be effective ?

Censorship cannot work: once the information is out, it keeps recreating itself on different platforms. For instance, an audio recording involving directly the PM and his son in the corruption scandal http://erdogansdollars.blogspot.fr/2014/02/how-erdogan-pm-of-turkey-asked-his-son.html was uploaded on February 24 at 10pm. By 2am it was blocked. But within those 4 hours, more than 2.5 million people had heard the original leak. (So imagine how many more listened to the conversation) after replicates emerged on the web. In the hours following the leak and its blocking, an interesting phenomena also occurred. People who had downloaded or recorded the leaked tape on their mobile devices started to play it out loud in public transports. What a smart way to avoid censorship ! And now there is no one who hasn’t heard about the leak !

Do you foresee practical limits to the implementation of that piece of legislation ?

As anyone will be able to call upon the TIB, (note that) this is very democratic, a paralysis of the TIB (notably through abusive requests) is not excluded. Actually we (the Pirate Party members) were wondering if we should report our own profiles !

During the Gezi protests, the PM requested major web surveillance to be established in the country (to prevent the spread of information). Which, by the way, shows that the government’s intention to censor the web was already clear back then. The head of MIT (Turkish secret services) Hakan Fidan reportedly told Erdoğan it was impossible to do so, that they would need 2 million of additional staff members online.

Similarly, the TIB director (a former MIT officer) alone cannot supervise all blocking orders. Therefore 50 other officers were appointed to assist him (mostly former MIT agents as well). Besides don’t forget that there is over a hundred key words used to filter content. So one can wonder if available human resources will be sufficient to process requests (within the prescribed timeframe) and for the censorship system to be efficient.

Amendments requested by the President were introduced to the newly adopted law. According to these, the control of content and data collection will be done under judicial review. Do these provisions provide enough guarantee against arbitrary and politically motivated censorship ?

Let me remind you that now in Turkey the judiciary is almost completely in the hand of the government. Given this context, (review might be a mere formality). Besides there are no judges with real expertise on internet issues. Despite of it, they will have to make a decision within 48 hours following a TIB blocking order !

A witty demonstration banner playing with the PM first name Tayyip. Internet is his !

Henceforth, access restrictions will be URL-based. The tenants of the law argue this is a more liberal alternative to full website blocking because of its targeted nature. Do you agree ?

This is kind of an improvement. For instance, yesterday Youtube has not been blocked entirely (following the audio leak involving the PM). Right now, we cannot access anymore the Youtube page where the recording was originally uploaded, but we can at least keep listening to music and watching movies ! But don’t get me wrong: this doesn’t make the censorship system (acceptable).

The trouble is that from now on there will be no more visible sign of censorship which will make it difficult to monitor. In other words, we won’t be able to know which pages are blocked, we won’t realize that the information we were looking for is actually out there. Indeed the provision according to which TIB had to post a notice for every single blocked website has been removed from the old version of the law. Since authorities don’t have to keep track of blocked pages anymore, they won’t have to supply statistics either. Engelliweb.org will also be prevented to keep a list of blocked pages. And it won’t no longer be possible to retrieve the missing pages (under the previous system it was possible to access censored content by merely changing DNS setting). Note that the authorities have already been using this system before the new bill was passed. For instance, shoutout.org, an activist platform has been banned for months without notification and with no court order.

Law foresees the creation of an Internet Service Providers (ISP) association with compulsory membership. If providers refuse to join, they won’t be permitted to do business in Turkey. Providers have also the obligation to record users web surfing history, to store it for two years and communicate such info upon request to TIB. Finally, under financial penalties, they must implement TIB’s content blocking decision within 4 hours. Will they cooperate ?  

If I am not mistaking, they have already been doing this. I think they have a major log file about everyone. They were collecting phone conversations, internet date from everyone every 30 minutes. Now that the law requires ISP to establish a union, all the information will come from one place. It is a centralized system which will allow for uniformity in the data format. Altogether it will be faster and easier for the state to control everything.

In this mercantilist vision of the web, ISP are forced to act as state organs. Note that forcing ISP to become a united group goes against free market principles. (Internet provision service sector) is like a regulated market because only states allow these companies to provide such services. That is why ISP should consider closing down and go outside Turkey. But some won’t have the choice given the importance of the investments they have made. Foreign companies will also shy away from Turkey. Finally, the obligations imposed on ISP will cost them a lot of money, which in turn will have repercussions on the users. Internet will be working more slowly and connection will get more expansive. Isn’t that ironic: Turkey has already the most expansive internet connection in the world and we have to pay for getting censored !

Will foreigners residing in Turkey also be targeted ?

Of course. Since the law is only valid for connections established from Turkey, foreign residents cannot escape control, unless they resort to a foreign connection (which is illegal). The only device one could imagine resorting to would be portable internet hotspots to connect with satellites in order to provide access to users in a radius of a few hundred meters for a few hours.

Are there any accessible means to go round the law and protect your privacy ?

There are not many bypassing tools available to individuals, especially since the existing ones are now criminalized by the law. (editor’s note : under the former law, avoiding blocking and filters by changing internet protocol DNS was not illegal because the law only intended to control the publishing of information not the access to information. Now providers are also requested to prevent bypassing.). But as we don’t recognize the censorship, we say we will continue bypassing it. Our favored tool for secured browsing is TOR.

If highly tech savvy, one could also think to resort to a meshnet, a pirated internet not regulated by the state. However building home-made routers would require hundred of kilometers of cable!

Voices criticizing the new law came from different sectors of society (digital natives, NGOs, business association, journalists). However there does not seem to be a real coordination between them and the demonstrations organized against internet censorship didn’t seem to attract much affluence. Why ?

Korsan parti’s call for a day-time demonstration.

Well first because the power has implemented a divide to conquer strategy. Then the lack of cooperation within civil society is also the product of the generation gap. Most of NGOs leaders belong to the 68 generation. During Gezi they already tried to claim authority over youngsters. These factors partly explain why agreement could not be reached over the Pirate party’s recent general call in favor of day-time demonstrations. According to us, drawing a large crowd on Taksim would have delivered a clear message to the state. Previously (in 2007 and 2011) it had worked. However some digital NGOs did not want to join in, some even refused to answer our call. Other NGOs refused to participate. Was it tied to the fact that we are a tiny and young organization ? Maybe.  But I still cannot understand why some said the law was not so bad. Conversely some leftist groups insisted on organizing night time protests. Which is basically an invitation for clashes. That does not serve our cause, (it just feeds the government rhetoric) who blames troubles on digital ‘terrorists’. We believe that if something can change, it will be through cooperation. Digital NGOs alone cannot obtain anything. Neither leftists or rightists alone. All marginalized people whose voices are denied should be together on the streets.

The PM labeled Twitter a “troublemaker”, a “menace to society” during the Gezi uprising. A couple of days ago, he made reference to the ‘robot lobby’ accused of manipulating the web to attack the government. Does this kind of discourse hits its target in a country where almost 35 millions of inhabitants (almost half the population) are internet users ?

People who support the government (might be tech savvy) but unfortunately the bulk of them don’t realize they might also become victim of similar blockings in a few years from now. If most of them simply cannot imagine that power may change hands, the rest is so afraid that some government could again prevent them from being devoted muslims that rather than being democratic they chose to be more offensive. Most of the law they passed were mostly the reverse of what happened in the 90s. The oppressed became the oppressors.

1) Note : The Turkish section of the Pirate Party was established last year although it is not yet officially registered. The core group counts roughly 30 active members. In addition to its 4 000 thousand Twitter followers, the party claims to be able to mobilize around 10 000 supporters throughout the country. http://korsanparti.org/2013/04/08/a-pirate-party-in-turkiye/

Main provisions of the new internet law:
Access to content can be blocked following an order issued by TIB’s president. TIB, the Communication authority is a state body. It holds no judicial power. Publication of content deemed to be violating privacy or to be insulting or discriminatory (i.e. that denigrates particular section of society on account of social status, race, religion, sect, gender, region of origin) will be treated as a crime that warrant censorship.
Providers are requested to retain users’ traffic data up to two years. The obligation also bears down on hosting companies.
The data obtained by TIB lies under no destruction measures (contrary to service providers).
Following intervention of the President Abdullah Gül various amendments to the text were introduced by the Parliament.
Hence the TIB’s decision will be subjected to court review within 24 hours. Judges are requested to assess the justifications brought forward to prohibit access to websites within 48 hours.
TIB won’t be able to request data from providers without court order.
TIB can only ask from providers limited information related to users traffic data such as IP address and sites visited, people contacted, online conversation carried out. The content of web communication is removed from the definition of traffic data.



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