In the Pursuit of Digital Rights: Spotlight on Turkey

The ninth annual UN Internet Governance Forum (IGF) took place in Turkey in early September, placing a global spotlight on the country’s digital rights record. As we have seen in recent years, the UN-mandated forum has a tendency to give rise to complicated and unexpected consequences in its host country.

Throughout IGF, digital rights advocates — including activists, civil society actors, and NGOs — focused on the state of digital rights in Turkey by publishing reports and assessments, raising public awareness of the issues through social media, and supporting the Internet Ungovernance Forum (IUF), organized by Turkish civil society. However, the introduction of a problematic new bill in Turkey after the conclusion of the IGF shows that much progress has yet to be made. Let’s take a closer look at some of these recent developments in Turkey.

GISWatch Report: Internet rights that went wrong in Turkey

This year’s Global Information Society Watch report included a special thematic report assessing the current state of internet rights in Turkey. Author Güne? Tavmen conducted this review based on a framework developed by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) – which in turn built off of a report by former Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression Frank La Rue and on the UN Human Rights Committee’s General Comment 34 – and examined pressing internet issues such as access to content, intermediary liability, and surveillance through a human rights perspective. The report ends with several recommendations for Turkish civil society, including advocating for transparency in decision-making and raising awareness about government and corporate surveillance practices.

Freedom House Report: The Struggle for Turkey’s Internet

Just in time for the IGF, Freedom House published a report calling Turkey a “battleground state for Internet regulation.” The report focuses on three important and complex aspects of the internet in Turkey: censorship and data collection, infrastructure and telecommunications policy, and the rise of citizen journalism and social media activism. The report illustrates that Turkey is currently a “swing state” in terms of internet governance, meaning that time will tell whether its young population, use of new media, and improving infrastructure will spur a free and open Internet, or whether government regulation will throttle freedom online.

IGF Workshop #225: Online Freedoms and Access to Information Online

IGF workshop #225 (watch it here) focused on instances where online freedoms are restricted by governments and explored ways to enhance various stakeholders’ efforts in addressing these threats and challenges. The panelists included various Turkish voices such as Serhat Koc, who represents the Pirate Party movement in Turkey, and Asli Tunc, an academic who works on freedom of expression issues. Gonenc Gurkaynak, another panelist, stated that hosting the IGF has had an undeniably positive impact in Turkey. In a country with “severe issues of internet governance,” the event has allowed people to discuss and raise awareness about these critical issues on a global scale.

The Internet Ungovernance Forum: An Alternate Sphere

In the spirit of raising awareness and facilitating discussion on critical digital rights issues that were not included in the IGF agenda, the Internet Ungovernance Forum (IUF) was convened in parallel to the IGF on September 4–5, 2014. The event was organized by Alternatif Bilisim, a Turkish civil society organization, and brought together a range of interesting and noteworthy speakers (including Julian Assange who made a surprise appearance as the closing speaker) to present on issues such as net neutrality, citizen journalism, and the use of online resources to support democratic protest movements.

A special workshop was also held prior to the start of the IUF, where attendees including Turkish academics, international NGOs, and computer scientists could learn about the increasingly complicated processes of internet governance. The workshop aimed to help internet activists and other interested parties to “collectively develop strategies for action at the local or international level on the topics of surveillance, privacy, the securitization of the Internet and censorship.”

Complementing these presentations and other events, Access hosted a Digital Security Clinic throughout the IUF and the IGF to provide one-on-one consultations with participants to help them examine their current digital security practices, needs, and capacities.

After everybody left: New omnibus bill reveals more internet restriction

It’s clear that IGF had a positive impact on Turkey by fostering an environment where various Turkish civil society actors could network and foster global partnerships. Nevertheless, just a few days after the IGF and the IUF, a new omnibus bill was passed on September 10 with troubling ramifications for online freedoms. The bill was led by the new Prime Minister Davutoglu’s government and approved by the newly elected President Erdogan (formerly the country’s prime minister). Of 146 provisions in total, two provisions of this exhaustive reform bill once again were to amend the notorious Law No. 5651, commonly known as the Internet Law of Turkey. There had been no public debates nor official consultations on these amendments, as they were “slipped into the bill at the last minute.”

These new amendments tried to further increase the powers of Turkey’s telecommunications authority (TIB), the head of which is appointed by the government. TIB was to be authorized to demand ISPs restrict access to a site within four hours in order to protect “national security, to protect public order, or to prevent a crime from being committed.” These restrictions would be subject to a court review in the ensuing 24 hours, which then must be finalized within two days.

However, as seen with the temporary bans on Twitter and YouTube this year, these bans are usually sanctioned by the courts in the short term, only to be scrutinized and overturned later on by higher courts (such as the Constitutional Court). As Human Rights Watch pointed out, “the broad power to block sites granted to the TIB under the law hugely increases the scope for arbitrary decisions violating rights to free speech and access to information online.” Moreover, as stated by Zeynep Tufekci, a fellow at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University, this development allows the government to block content “with no delay, meaning it decreases the odds that people will see content they don’t want them to.”

The new law also raised concerns around data retention and privacy. TIB was to be given the authority to “centrally store internet users’ metadata such as online browsing histories, websites visited, and which email addresses a user corresponds with.” Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher for Human Rights Watch, stated that “the retention of metadata by the Telecom Directorate is deeply worrying because it gives the body the direct capacity to conduct surveillance on people’s internet use.” In fact, around a week ago, two Turkish academics, Yaman Akdeniz and Kerem Altiparmak, put forward an application to the Constitutional Court for the annulment of the data retention clauses, as it violates Article 20 of the Turkish constitution on privacy, as well as Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights, to which Turkey is a signatory. By the end of last week, this application was processed by the Constitutional Court, leading to the annulment of these recent amendments on data retention and expanded authority to censor content.This recent development is welcomed, however does not change the fact that the government has been on a path to dilute Turkish citizens’ rights online.

We’ll be following the evolving situation on digital rights in Turkey, and hope that the discussions catalyzed by the IGF and IUF will help us move closer to a world in which Turkish citizens have unfettered access to a free and open internet.