The Turkish government has long had a fractious relationship with the internet, marked by periodic bans on sites like YouTube for content that contravenes Turkish laws — like the law that makes it an offence to insult Turkishness. But new amendments to the country’s internet legislation that were passed by parliament on Wednesday take this internet-phobia to new levels, and represent an unprecedented attack on the free speech rights of Turkish citizens.
Among other things, the amendments allow the authorities to block access to specific content on the internet with as little as four hours notice, and without a court order. The legislation goes beyond the kind of blanket site-wide banning that Turkey has used in the past against services like YouTube, and allows the government to block specific pieces of content at the URL level, in much the same way that China’s Great Firewall does.
Law authorizes deep-packet inspection
In many ways, the new Turkish law is the rough equivalent of SOPA and PIPA — two anti-piracy bills that were proposed by the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives in 2011 and sparked a huge outcry about surveillance and free speech, to the point where both were withdrawn. The Turkish amendments, however, have been passed by parliament and now just require the signature of the country’s president, Abdullah Gul.
Like those laws, the Turkish legislation forces ISPs to act as agents of the government in a variety of ways, including a requirement to store virtually all data about their users’ online activity for at least two years. The amendments also authorize the government to use methods such as “deep packet inspection” in order to bypass anonymizing tools and other technologies that Turkish dissidents might use to get around content blocks or bans.
Turkish nationals, including University of North Carolina sociologist and social-media expert Zeynep Tufekci, have been criticizing the proposed legislation for some time because they see it as an infringement of their rights to free speech. Some see the crackdown as a response to the recent corruption scandal, in which some senior ministers have reportedly been receiving bribes. Turkey also routinely censors and restricts its national news media, making internet sources and especially social media an even more important factor.
A farewell to freedom of speech
As noted by the site BoingBoing, one Turkish citizen has written a goodbye letter to the internet and posted it on Medium, saying: “This is a farewell to our freedom of speech, privacy and World Wide Web, and an unwanted welcome to Turkey Narrow Web.” Ahmet Sabanci described the legislation in this way:
“ISP’s going to log everything we do together. They’ll keep these logs for years and government can check these logs whenever they want. They’ll use URL-based censorship on you. That means, if my essays on Medium counted as ‘harmful,’ other people can see Medium but they’ll never be able to read my essays on Medium. And most of the people won’t be able to notice this.”
In a recent interview with Wired magazine, the creator of the web — Sir Tim Berners-Lee — said that one of his fears about the future of the global network was that it would become Balkanized, with countries taking control of portions of the net and restricting information. He said he wants “a web that’s open, works internationally, works as well as possible and is not nation-based.” Unfortunately, that kind of free flow of information isn’t in the interests of repressive regimes.