Threats and perspectives of Internet Freedoms in Turkey

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Andrea CalderaroAndrea Calderaro, from the EUI’s Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom, works on internet and International Affairs, with a particular focus on internet governance, cybersecurity, and the role of EU in the global internet policy debate.

On 20 March, the Turkish government shut down first Twitter, and then, seven days later, YouTube. While Twitter has been now restored, YouTube remains still blocked since then. The increasing restrictions imposed by the Turkish government on the internet illustrate an increasing distance between Turkey and the EU concerning the governance of internet freedoms.

The shutting down of these two widely used services is one of the first applications of the disputed law on internet restriction enacted in February 2014. This law allows Turkish Telecommunication Authority (TIB) to shut down online services within 24 hours without requesting the intervention of a court ruling. In addition, the law forces internet services providers (ISPs) to store data of online user activities for up to two years.

These threats to freedom of expression are not however, new in Turkey. Reporters Sans Frontier ranks Turkey 154th out of 180 countries for freedom of expression. The Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) reports that Turkey is the country with the highest number of jailed journalist in the world, higher than countries like Iran and China.

The Turkish government has already implemented hidden internet filtering for social and political reasons, by importing and using digital surveillance technology like FinnSpy and Remote Control System, software traditionally used by authoritarian regimes. The new internet law and the recent ban of Twitter and YouTube indicates an escalation of censorship in the country. With this, the government enhances its restrictions by publically enforcing its control over the infrastructure of the Internet. Given that internet in Turkey is offered almost solely by the formerly state controlled Türk Telekom’s TTNET, the government can exercise this control easily.

The Internet Governance Forum (IGF), a key international forum launched by the United Nations in 2006 for facilitating multi-stakeholder debate on internet governance, will be hosted by Turkey this September. It is not the first time that the IGF is hosted in countries with bad records in terms of internet freedoms, but this year it comes at a very delicate moment for Turkey.

Although even Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul, openly opposed the increased restrictions of the Internet, the agenda of the Turkish government concerning internet freedoms cannot be underestimated. Given the recent electoral boost for the Prime Minister Erdogan, it seems likely that these developments will continue in the future. If so, Turkey seems to have picked a path that looks set to diverge from a European understanding of internet governance and the protection of free speech online.

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