‘Safe’ confronts ‘Free’ Internet in Turkey

by Postwoman

I was hoping to get some rest in Turkey after a very challenging semester in New York but I’ve got caught up with a heated debate on the network filtering and could not stop sharing some thoughts. Let’s hope that is a solid comeback to the blogosphere!

Turkey, as a country with quite negative freedom of information records in the world, is now confronting the regulatory challenges of the harmful content (for children) online and network filtering. Recently the country’s Internet regulator, the Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK) introduced optional filters that users could choose from before browsing the Internet. The main idea behind the filters, as stated by the head of BTK, is to respond to the parents’ complaints and to protect children. The filtering system, presented to be voluntary, is coupled with a list of banned words that include blonde, sister-in-law or gay and planned to be in effect by August 22.

BTK’s proposal was soon welcomed by a range of protests, initiated on social media and continued in the streets of more than 30 cities in Turkey on May 15. Following this citizen action and the recommendation of the former Minister of Transport and Communications, a meeting (#internetkurulu) was convened on May 25 in Istanbul. BTK and the Telecommunications Directorate (TIB) met representatives of NGOs and academics to discuss this controversial plan and the future of the ‘safe Internet’. It would have been great if this conversation had been streamed online and anyone following the event could have asked questions directly to the authorities. Although Twitter was the main tool to interact with both the participants and presumably the policymakers, as they were following it, the process was not as transparent and engaging as it should have been.

At the meeting, there was an apparent consensus that the BTK should have consulted with NGOs and academics long before this proposal had been prepared. Participants almost fully agreed that the centralized filtering through a government agency was unacceptable; hence this decision must be canceled. By the way, last week the head of BTK said in an interview that they would not be involved directly in filtering and leave that to the ISPs while their contribution would be identifying the boundaries of the harmful content. However, it is still questionable whether it is BTK’s expertise to decide on what is harmful or not while lots of controversial political and cultural issues as well as national security concerns clash with the freedom of information in Turkey. In the end, I could not hear whether BTK has actually responded to the specific concerns of the participants or left things in the air – to be honest my impression from related Twitter feed was quite negative in terms of saying anything new and responsive – but looks like they will review the points that emerged in this gathering and come back with an official reply soon. Otherwise, a further street protest seems to be on its way!

Network filtering, especially in relation to (child) pornography, is not a smooth topic to begin with. Same attempts by the governments in countries like Norway, Finland, or Denmark to create a list of websites to be filtered received negative response. The emerging best practice in European countries is ISPs working with NGOs like the Internet Watch Foundation (UK) or Save the Children (Denmark) to report and filter the harmful or abusive content. Thanks to the networking capacity of the EU, individual countries can easily learn from each other’s mistakes or better practices. In light of the recent discussion in Turkey and the latest meeting (with potential debate to follow hopefully), I would like to raise a number of concerns related to the current policymaking process regarding this issue:

  • From the beginning of this discussion, I could not see any of the ISPs standing out to share their concerns or comments on the new plan. This is quite alarming because BTK, when it is grilled about the centralized filtering, repeatedly says that ISPs would conduct the filtering. However as users, we do not know how much information will be shared between them and the silence of the ISPs is worrisome that they would, not surprisingly, be partners with the government.
  • Working with NGOs, either by BTK or ISPs, seems to be one of the strong recommendations after today’s meeting. It sounds like a great idea! However which NGOs are we talking about? What kind of responsibilities they would have? That would be definitely one of the next discussion points and it should not take place behind closed doors.
  • Finally, child pornography, however it is a matter of grave concern, is not the only freedom of information issue in the Turkish online sphere – Law 5651 lingering over lots of controversial cases some of which have been taken to the court- BTK, as the regulating agency, should immediately create a discussion forum to shed light on such critical issues and involve related parties through a transparent and clear process.

The Turkish government’s interference on the net is too obvious to miss on many fronts. Not only long-time blocking of YouTube or Blogspot but also the recent attacks against the freedom of press have resulted in the lack of public trust thereby causing citizens to be extra-cautious against such regulation. On the one hand, it is good to see that more people are aware of and engaged in these policies and their relation to the basic rights of having access to information and freedom of expression. On the other hand, the heated political opposition, right before the elections, should not let the discussion be limited to standing against censorship, though very important, and there should be more proactive approach to how these issues can be handled.

PS: For those interested in this issue, I highly recommend to follow @cyberrights on Twitter!