Internet freedom in Turkey: “It just keeps getting worse and worse”

Is the Internet Governance Forum, organised under patronage of the United Nations still useful and does it make progress? A clear “no” came from Turkish activists and human rights experts in Istanbul last week. Their workshop proposals on Turkey's notorious internet Law 5651, ongoing court cases and growing censorship of content on the internet had been rejected by the IGF’s so-called Multistakeholder Advisory Group, in charge of selecting 87 workshops. Photographer Işık Mater, artist Burak Arıkan and IT-expert Ahmet Sabanci, all three members of the Alternative Informatics Association reflect on the need for ungovernance. “This is our final call to action to defend freedom of expression,” the Turkish activists conveyed to us. Just after this interview and only hours after the more than 3000 IGF participants had left Istanbul, the Turkish parliament passed yet another law in order to tighten the grip of the "Presidency of telecommunication and communication’s (TIB)" over internet communication.

Internet Policy Review: Why was there a need for an “Ungovernance Forum”, why ungovernance?

Burak Arıkan: The Internet Governance Forum has a lot of flaws. One of them, is that it is trying to force discussion on one particular idea: multi-stakeholder governance. We decided to call our event ungovernance because we wanted to talk independently from governance. The issues we wanted to discuss were internet and human rights.

Ahmet Sabanci: Turkey has one of the worst internet laws in the world, similar to China.

Arıkan: Perhaps even worse than China? It certainly allows for mass surveillance.

Sabanci: Also, we wanted to discuss the issues at stake more freely.

Internet Policy Review: Why not use the IGF itself as a venue for this?

Sabanci: We had proposed five workshops on internet issues in Turkey, but they were all rejected. We have no official response on the reasons for refusal. But now we learned that the UN wanted to keep distance from discussing political topics of one particular country. So they rejected topics on Turkey.

Işık Mater: They have been protecting Turkey from the Turks.

Arıkan: The IGF also in our opinion has not paid enough attention to mass surveillance and privacy. So we think there might not be such a great need for the IGF as a venue. We also think NGOs are underrepresented, certainly those from Turkey. This is about government and business. This is why we preferred to have our own ungovernance event.

Internet Policy Review: What are main issues with Turkey’s internet law?

Sabanci: Internet service providers are now required to become part of an ISP organisation, through which they are then regulated by the government. The organisation receives blocking requests. IP addresses are logged. The data has to be retained for up to two years by the providers. Deep packet inspection (DPI) has been legalised. When you change your DNS service you are also routed to your ISP. Under the law, free DNS services like Google DNS are blocked. Also, the ISP organisations will know if you try to route around.

Arıkan: Censorship is now made easier. It is easy to ban a website as it will be blocked on the request of an individual who pretends his individual rights have been violated. This all resulted from the protests against corrupt politicians in December 2013.

Mater: There is only one network provider, Türk Telekom. All ISPs have to use its backbone.

Internet Policy Review: How many ISPs are there?

Mater: There are 285 small ISPs, but they all use Türk Telekom’s network. They cannot have their own infrastructure. Türk Telekom is half owned by the Saudi Arabian government, ten or 15 percent are in the hands of the Turkish government. Due to this market situation, internet access is rather expensive.

Sabanci: For an 8MBit/s line and 50 gigabyte data volume I pay 90 Turkish Lira (about 30 Euro).

Internet Policy Review: What will the new legislation bring for the ISP market?

Mater: Many ISPs, I am afraid, will not survive. They have to get and install the technical tools, including deep packet inspection equipment to obtain their license. They have to perform blocking according to the new ISP organisations’ rules. It is just too expensive.

Arıkan: We speak about a televisation of the internet [editor’s note: in the sense that is developing towards a broadcast only medium].

Internet Policy Review: Are there not protests from the industry, from citizens?

Sabanci: Companies and the private sector are afraid. They do not want to act against the government. In 2011, we had one of the biggest acts of expression about internet freedom in Turkey. More than 50.000 people came out against censorship of the internet. Before the review of Law 5651 in February, we did not get the same attention. People were tired from the Gezi-Park protests (2013).

Arıkan: But the night the law passed, many people were on the streets, in silence. It was a Gezi style protest. [editor’s note: In May 2013 protests against the development of the central square Taksim Gezi-Park erupted in Istanbul and resulted in a wave of protests against the ruling government all over Turkey].

Internet Policy Review: What were your goals for the Internet Ungovernance Forum and what are the goals of the Alternative Informatics Association?

Arıkan: We want everyone to know what is happening. We want to tell people about the latest developments and build awareness, first of all in Turkey. At the same time, we try to talk to the regulator. We want to advise them to stop going down this road.

Sabanci: For the latest version of Law 5651 the government said that it had talked with NGOs and civil society, but nobody ever got an invitation. They just talk to people close to the government. We certainly think that discussions of internet laws should include civil society. Governments should not just use the label ‘civil society participation’. The internet should be a free platform and we should stop being pressured.

Internet Policy Review: Are you afraid of potential repressions?

Arıkan, Mater, Sabanci: No.

Arıkan: We know that our emails are logged.

Mater: We get the occasional threat on Twitter by people paid for doing that.

Sabanci: We are beyond that and are rather afraid that the constitutional law will be eroded. Maybe in five months from now, the system will be changed and taken over by one political party who decides on who the judges will be.

Internet Policy Review: What would have been your call to IGF?

We understand the sensitivities of the international community, we understand that they want to keep a distance from the respective hosts. But to discuss the governance of the internet in countries with oppressive regimes and not give the people there a chance to voice their issues, that is questionable. This is what happened to us. And also, we need the US and the UK to get real and take responsibility for what Edward Snowden has revealed with regard to mass surveillance. Their respective practices are an encouragement to our government, you know. They say to us: 'look at their democratic governments, they do that, so why shouldn't we?'. Maybe if they started solving the issues, that also could be an example.

Sabanci: New legislation was just passed after the IGF left. They will allow central control by the TIB to access communication traffic data.

Internet Policy Review: What is your reaction?

Mater: With the passing of the new law, internet traffic information will be provided by telecommunication authorities (TIB) and passed along to related officials in the case of a court decision, according to the text. Before, internet traffic information was retained by the ISPs for one to two years. This regulation gives authority to the TIB to control all the internet traffic data. With the DPI technology, the TIB can extract not only the website addresses that users visit from that traffic, but also every bit of information about the users themselves.

The new law clearly violates privacy rights and makes it easier for the Turkish government to spy on people, to blacklist them and harvest data.

It is totally ironic that this law has passed just four days after the Internet Governance Forum, where Turkish government authorities gave speeches claiming that there is internet freedom in Turkey. It just keeps getting worse and worse.

Sabanci: I can say that this wasn't really unexpected but the timing was a surprise for us. Passing a bill like this right after the IGF and people’s reactions to Turkey's situation was really interesting. For me personally, this bill is a direct call to action for anyone who cares about freedom of speech, human rights and a free internet in Turkey and worldwide. Regarding the IGF, this bill might mean that Turkey’s government doesn't really care about what this Forum is trying to achieve. Thinking about the Turkish government's events and talks at the IGF, it was just a place for the government to polish its record. But seeing that this wasn’t successful, they probably started not to care about the IGF anymore.

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