As the lights fade on Turkey's Internet

Here is my take on the darkness covering Turkey’s internet…

Such paradoxes and such irony…

Only a week after hosting the ninth Internet Governance Forum (IGF), Ankara struck back at criticism of government Internet policies with full force.

Taking up the repressive agenda from where it had been blocked last February, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ratified new amendments to the Internet Law in a blitz move, expanding powers already given to the Telecommunications Directorate (TİB) and further tightening the screws on freedom of expression and communications.

There is irony in the very title of the spot-on prediction made by Freedom House, which issued a comprehensive report: “The Struggle for Turkey’s Internet.”

Struggle, indeed.

When former President Abdullah Gül, instead of issuing a veto last February, forced through some changes to the amendments being made to the Internet Law, and when the Constitutional Court in a historic ruling lifted the Twitter ban, optimists believed that was it. But many pessimists scoffed. They claimed it would be business as usual for Turkey’s new president, simply because he felt he could not exert enough control over the Internet and social media, as he can over conventional media. The latter proved to be right: Erdoğan’s enthusiasm over passing the law shows that the struggle will have to intensify.

TİB now has arbitrary powers: Within four hours of a request from the authority, headed by a former intelligence official, Internet service providers (ISPs) are obliged to block a website. The authority of TİB has been expanded from the earlier justification of “privacy violations” used to block sites to matters of “national security, the restoration of public order and the prevention of crimes.”

Equally worrisome, TİB will also be able to obtain Internet traffic data from ISPs without a court order and will provide these data to the relevant authorities if a court order so demands. Internet traffic data reveals the websites a person has visited, how much time he or she has spent on a website and with whom a person communicates by e-mail.

Sound like George Orwell’s “1984?” A Mukhabarat state in the making? Many Internet activists and the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) are in the struggle and we can predict that it will first go to one of the last remaining bastions of human rights, the Constitutional Court.

CHP deputy and former European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) judge in Strasbourg Rıza Türmen stated that the amendment to the Internet law is against the principles of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). The deputy also said the amendment gives the TİB head the authority to implement arbitrary practices over the use of Internet.

“How will the TİB head decide that the content of a website is a danger to national security? The TİB head is subordinate to the Prime Ministry. He will have the power to arbitrarily block access to websites,” he said, implying that the TİB head may receive orders from the prime minister to block websites that disturb the government.

Given the resolute forcefulness of Erdoğan to enhance a restrictive culture, and the lack of strong enough democratic counter-dynamics, he may be right in his concerns.

National security and public order are familiar terms to citizens who experienced the semi-military “democracy” until the end of the 1990s. These terms are now returning to the scene, and say enough about what the word “new” means in the propaganda term “New Turkey,” most probably referring to a “Brave New Turkey” than anything else.

The real threat now to citizens has to do with the powers of TİB to collect and keep all the data of each and every Internet user — the URL addresses, the length of time spent and the e-mail traffic — and even learn about users’ geographic locations. In the long run, as the expert Füsun Sarp argues, the storage of all IP addresses makes it possible to find out who has which account on social media, because they can bypass the refusal of, say, Twitter or Google, to share names and passwords.

Needless to say, these powers — if abused as the pessimists say — make the mass-profiling of individuals and social groups easy.

Is there a way out? It is becoming more and more difficult to defend freedom of expression in Turkey. As I have argued many times in this column: Once an elected leader decides to take the path to authoritarian rule, there is no turning back. I hope I am proven wrong.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has released a statement on its official website in which it harshly criticizes new amendments to Turkey’s Internet law that grant the Telecommunications Directorate (TİB) broad powers to block websites and to amass users’ Internet activity data, saying that those amendments should be overturned.

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