Turkey at the Edge

The people of Turkey are facing a stark choice: will they continue to have a mostly free and open Internet, or will they join the two dozen states around the world that filter the content that their citizens see?

Over the past two days, I’ve been here in Turkey to talk about our new book (written by the whole OpenNet Initiative team), called Access Denied. The book describes the growth of Internet filtering around the world, from only about 2 states in 2002 to more than 2 dozen in 2007. I’ve been welcomed by many serious, smart people in Ankara and Istanbul, Turkey, who are grappling with this issue, and to whom I’ve handed over a copy of the new book — the first copies I’ve had my hands on.

This question for Turkey runs deep, it seems, from what I’m hearing. As it has been described to me, the state is on the knife’s edge, between one world and another, just as Istanbul sits, on the Bosporus, at the juncture between “East and West.”

Our maps of state-mandated Internet filtering on the ONI site describe Turkey’s situation graphically. The majority of those states that filter the net extensively lie to its east and south; its neighbors in Europe filter the Internet, though much more selectively (Nazi paraphernalia in Germany and France, e.g., and child pornography in northern Europe; in the U.S., we certainly filter at the PC level in schools and libraries, though not on a state-mandated basis at the level of publicly-accessible ISPs). It’s not that there are no Internet restrictions in the states in Europe and North America, nor that these places necessarily have it completely right (we don’t). It’s both the process for removing harmful material, the technical approach that keeps the content from viewers (or stops publishers from posting it), and the scale of information blockages that differs. We’ll learn a lot from how things turn out here in Turkey in the months to come.

An open Internet brings with it many wonderful things: access to knowledge, more voices telling more stories from more places, new avenues for free expression and association, global connections between cultures, and massive gains in productivity and innovation. The web 2.0 era, with more people using participatory media, brings with it yet more of these positive things.

Widespread use of the Internet also gives rise to challenging content along with its democratic and economic gains. As Turkey looks ahead toward the day when they join the European Union once and for all, one of the many policy questions on the national agenda is whether and how to filter the Internet. There is sensitivity around content of various sorts: criticism of the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk; gambling; and obscenity top the list. The parliament passed a law earlier in 2007 that gives a government authority a broad mandate to filter content of this sort from the Internet. To date, I’m told, about 10 orders have been issued by this authority, and an additional 40 orders by a court to filter content. The process is only a few months old; much remains to be learned about how this law, known as “5651,” will be implemented over time.

The most high-profile filtering has been of the popular video-sharing site, YouTube. Twice in the past few months, the authority has sent word to the 73 or so Turkish ISPs to block access, at the domain level, to all of YouTube. These blocks have been issued in response to complaints about videos posted to YouTube that were held to be derogatory toward the founder, Ataturk. The blocks have lasted about 72 hours.

After learning from the court of the offending videos, YouTube has apparently removed them, and the service has been subsequently restored. YouTube has been perfectly accessible on the connections I’ve had in Istanbul and Ankara in the past few days.

During this trip, I’ve been hosted by the Internet Association here, known as TBD, and others who have helped to set up meetings with many people — in industry, in government, in journalism, and in academia — who are puzzling over this issue. The challenges of this new law, 5651, are plain:

– The law gives very broad authority to filter the net. It places this power in a single authority, as well as in the courts. It is unclear how broadly the law will be implemented. If the authority is well-meaning, as it seems to me to be, the effect of the law may be minimal; if that perspective changes, the effect of the law could be dramatic.

– The blocks are (so far) done at the domain level, it would appear. In other words, instead of blocking a single URL, the blocks affect entire domains. Many other states take this approach, probably for cost or efficiency reasons. Many states in the Middle East/North Africa have blocked entire blogging services at different times, for instance.

– The system in place requires Internet services to register themselves with the Turkish authorities in order to get word of the offending URLs. This requirement is not something that many multinational companies are going to be able or willing to do, for cost and jurisdictional issues. Instead of a notice-and-takedown regimes for these out-of-state players, there’s a system of shutting down the service and restoring it only after the offending content has been filtered out.

* * *

The Internet – especially in its current phase of development – is making possible innovation and creativity in terms of content. Today, simple technology platforms like weblogs, social networks, and video-sharing sites are enabling individuals to have greater voice in their societies. These technologies are also giving rise to the creation of new art forms, like the remix and the mash-up of code and content. Many of those who are making use of this ability to create and share new digital works are young people – those born in a digital era, with access to high-speed networks and blessed with terrific computing skills, called “digital natives” – but many digital creators are grown-ups, even professionals.

Turkey is not alone in how it is facing this challenge. The threat of “too much” free expression online is leading to more Internet censorship in more places around the world than ever before. When we started studying Internet censorship five years ago, along with our colleagues in the OpenNet Initiative (from the Universities of Toronto, Cambridge, and Oxford, as well as Harvard Law School), there were a few places – like China and Saudi Arabia – where the Internet was censored.

Since then, there’s been a sharp rise in online censorship, and its close cousin, surveillance. About three dozen countries in the world restrict access to Internet content in one way or another. Most famously, in China, the government runs the largest censorship regime in the world, blocking access to political, social, and cultural critique from its citizens. So do Iran, Uzbekistan, and others in their regions. The states that filter the Internet most extensively are primarily in East Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and Central Asia.

* * *

Turkey’s choice couldn’t be clearer. Does one choose to embrace the innovation and creativity that the Internet brings with it, albeit along with some risk of people doing and saying harmful things? Or does one start down the road of banning entire zones of the Internet, whether online Web sites or new technologies like peer-to-peer services or live videoblogging?

In Turkey, the Internet has been largely free to date from government controls. Free expression and innovation have found homes online, in ways that benefit culture and the economy.

But there are signs that this freedom may be nearing its end in Turkey, through 5651 and how it is implemented. These changes come just as the benefits to be reaped are growing. When the state chooses to ban entire services for the many because of the acts of the few, the threat to innovation and creativity is high. Those states that have erected extensive censorship and surveillance regimes online have found them hard to implement with any degree of accuracy and fairness. And, more costly, the chilling effect on citizens who rely on the digital world for their livelihood and key aspects of their culture – in fact, the ability to remake their own cultural objects, the notion of semiotic democracy – is a high price to pay for control.

The impact of the choice Turkey makes in the months to come will be felt over decades and generations. Turkey’s choice also has international ramifications. If Turkey decides to clamp down on Internet activity, it will be lending aid to those who seek to see the Internet chopped into a series of local networks – the China Wide Web, the Iran Wide Web, and so forth – rather than continuing to build a truly World Wide Web.

Throwing Code Over the Wall to Non-Profits

Total blue sky, inspired in part by a wonderful gathering pulled together by Jake Shapiro at PRX and Vince Stehle at the Surdna Foundation, picking up on thoughts from various contexts:

If I could start (or otherwise will into existence) any non-profit right now, what it would do is to develop and apply code for non-profit organizations that are under-using new information technologies for core communications purposes. The organization would be comprised primarily of smart, committed, young coders and project managers, primarily, who know how to take open source and other web 2.0-type tools and apply them to connect to communities of interest. (Perhaps some coders would volunteer, too, on a moonlighting basis.)

There are a bunch of problems it would be designed to solve. There are lots of non-profit organizations, such as public media organizations or local initiative campaigns or NGOs in fields like human rights, for instance, that would like to leverage new technologies in the public interest — to reach new audiences for their work and to build communities around ideas — but have no clue as to how to go about doing it.

I think the stars are aligned for such a non-profit to make a big difference at this moment of wild technological innovation. There are lots of relevant pieces that are ready to be put together. Ning and many others have developed platforms that could be leveraged. SourceForge has endless tools for the taking and applying to solve problems. Blogs, wikis, social networks (think of the Facebook open API), and Second Life (or whatever you’d like to experiment with in the participatory media space) are also easy to put to work, if you know how. Most small organizations know that Digital Natives (and many others) are spending lots of their lives online. There are others who do things like this — consider the wonderful Tactical Tech in the global environment, as well as those who do development for political campaigns, like Blue State Digital — whose learning might be leveraged here. There is plenty of “pain in the marketplace,” as venture guys might say. There are smart coders coming out of schools who want to do well enough by doing good in a mission-driven organization (think of the geekiest members of the Free Culture movement). The goal would be to take these technologies and making them work for carefully targeted customers in the non-profit space.

The non-profit would require a reasonable pile of start-up capital to get set up and to have ballast for lean times, but it would have a revenue model. It would charge for its services, on an overall break-even basis. It would not develop things for free; it would develop things for cheap(er) and with real expertise for non-profits that need access to the technologies. (One could imagine a sliding scale based upon resources and revenue and so forth.) It would also have a training services arm. Clients would be required to pay for some training, too, so that the organization would have an internal capacity to keep up the tool that’s developed for them.

I could imagine it loosely based in a big, open, low-rent space in Central Square in Cambridge, right between MIT and Harvard, with collaborators around the world. I suspect there are others doing something like this, but I am constantly surprised by the number of times I am at meetings or conferences where prospective customers tell me they don’t have a provider for their needs.

Internet and the United Nations

I spent a few recent plane flights reading Paul Kennedy’s The Parliament of Man: The Past, Present, and Future of the United Nations. It’s a fine history of the UN, worth reading to be sure. (I loved his book from the late 1980s, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.) Kennedy starts, but does not long linger, on the period leading up to Bretton Woods and San Francisco and other meetings, (i.e., the interesting but unsatisfying story of the League of Nations and what came before it). Most of the book, organized thematically (phew!) rather than chronologically, takes up the treatment by the UN of key issues like security, peacekeeping, and economic development.

What sets the book apart, for me, was the treatment of “other” topics, such as environment, children’s issues, and cultural issues (what he calls the “softer face” of the UN) and human rights. Kennedy is not uncritical in his treatment of the UN’s role in these areas, but he seems to see in these activities great importance and even greater promise: “… it is difficult to imagine how much more riven and ruinous our world of six billion people would be today had there been no UN social, environmental, and cultural agendas — and no institutions to attempt, sometimes well and sometimes poorly, to put them into practice on the ground. It is a mixed record, but it is hard to see how it could be otherwise.” (p. 176). Amen.

In the human rights context, Kennedy lauds the work of Mary Robinson (p. 197-8) and others in the human rights context, while noting the many tensions that lurk in the treatment of human rights in the various relevant charters and institutions of the UN. One of these tensions bears on an issue that we’ve been working on at the Berkman Center for some time. In our shared work on the OpenNet Initiative (with Toronto, Oxford, and Cambridge), and with other partners in the related context of corporate ethics (Berkeley, St. Gallen, CDT), we’ve been puzzling over the sovereignty of states and the rights of individuals to civil liberties. On the one hand, of course, the several dozen states that filter the Internet and practice online surveillance (we imagine) of their citizens and visitors have a right to regulate activity within the jurisdiction that they control. On the other hand, the UN and its member states, through a series of treaties, have set forth the understanding that there are certain rights that attach to any individual in the signatory states regardless of the (good or bad) decisions that those states might make to abridge those rights. Kennedy frames much of the chapter on human rights in this same context: “How are world citizens and their governments to reconcile universal human rights with claims for state sovereignty?”

As those who study the Internet and care about human rights, we haven’t made the case clearly yet for where the rights of free expression and privacy in the Internet context fit in this balance. Many of us no doubt have strong convictions about which side of the ledger filtering and surveillance fall on; others, I know, see the issue are tricky and nuanced. There’s a field emerging here with enormous significance. The ability of activists to rely upon the Internet in repressive regimes is but one of the important things that hangs in the balance. I suspect that there are many captains of industry at large technology companies that feel caught in a purgatory wrought by this tension.

The most notable thing to me about Kennedy’s book — through no fault of his, to be clear — is the extent to which Internet plays essentially no role in the story of the UN’s first 60 years. The word appears four times in the text if the index is to be believed, and after reading the whole thing, I believe the index maker to have been accurate. No doubt the ITU or WSIS or the UN ICT Task Force could have made it into the text (they didn’t), but lots of other significant activities were likewise left out, understandably.

For Kennedy, Internet seems to be about an alternative way to tell the world about news, (i.e., the next chapter in the trajectory that starts with radio then goes to TV — and now it’s the net). That’s one way to talk about it, I suppose. The most extensive treatment appears on page 236: “… a more in-depth investigation of the place of news and cultural communications in the evolution of international affairs would need to consider the pervasive and transnational nature of the Internet. Since it has grown so fast in the past decade, and its popularity is exploding in the giant states of India and China, it is extremely difficult to get a good measure of its many impacts; but it seems fair to remark that because this is a medium that can be used and abused by anyone with electricity and a computer, it may become less and less a Western-dominated instrument.” An understatement, to be sure; and I am not certain that Kennedy is thinking of states as the abusers, but rather individuals — though the sentence is ambiguous enough that maybe my reading is wrong.

I can’t imagine that the history of the UN in 2065, written by the next eminent historian and chairman of a blue-ribbon commission, will have so little to say about information and communications technologies and the UN’s role in our field, but maybe it will — and maybe, though I am not so sure, that would be a wonderful thing if it were to come to pass.