The death of internet?

Once again a discussion broke out about internet freedom. The cause of the uproar is the plan of Turkish authorities to introduce a system for internet filtering. Starting August 22, there will be four packages internet users can subscribe to: children, family, domestic and standard. Standard will be the normal setting and it provides Turkish internet users with the internet access they have now. If you want a filter, for example because you want your child to be protected against filthy stuff, you have to subscribe to the applicable filter. All voluntarily, nothing mandatory.

Internet filters are used everywhere in the world. In my home country, the Netherlands, conservative Christians can for example download a programme that blocks all sites that insult God and are otherwise contrary to their beliefs. The filter is developed and distributed by a Christian group. And worldwide there are many filters like that, often aimed at protecting children. Personally I would never use an internet filter, just like I wouldn’t visit a library that offers only books that the library finds suitable for me to read. But if people themselves choose to use it, there is not much wrong with it.

Certain words

So, nothing wrong with the internet filter plan in Turkey? There is. What is wrong with it is that it is government imposed. A government authority, the Prime Minister’s Information Technologies Board (BTK), defines the packages and will not make public which sites will be banned with which filters. That is not the job of government. Private parties (providers, NGO’s, individuals, whoever) can develop and spread internet filters, the government should just butt out.

Especially in Turkey, where the state has a totally hopeless record when it comes to internet freedom. Thousands of websites are blocked, bans on sites and communities come and go, and the government even made a plan to ban URLs with certain words in them (the plan was cancelled after too much criticism). So when the BTK says ‘users who want to surf the web freely can do so under the standard package’, we could, ironically, get very happy: apparently starting August 22 they plan not only to introduce filters, but also end all bans that are in place now? I’m afraid not.

The head of BTK is, as quoted by the press, not amused by all the uproar. ‘Putting this topic on the agenda these days is political’, he says (referring to the upcoming elections and to the fact that the new rules were already finalized in February), and: ‘The new regulations are for the benefit of the users’. (Read more here and here.) Crocodile tears. The government can in no way be convincing, and they know it too. Of course people are reacting strongly to yet another state interference in internet access.

Informed

On the 15th of May in several cities in Turkey there will be protests for internet freedom in general and against the filter system in particular. It is, to be honest, shocking to see what protesters are saying. ‘This will be the death day of internet in Turkey!’, they shout, and ‘We won’t even be able to access Google anymore!’. Maybe people are really not well informed (and in that case, they should get informed before taking to the streets), or they willingly distort the facts.

I condemn the protesters for their distorted picturing of what’s going on. Facts always take you further than cheap, untrue slogans. But I condemn the government too: they should immediately start focussing on proposing laws to make the internet as open as possible, not on making laws and regulations to restrict, guide or censor access to the world wide web.

7 thoughts on “The death of internet?”

  1. If people say they won’t be able to access google, they are not totally off base since one of the filters is ‘Turkey-only.’ The government really wants the big web service providers of be within the reach of Turkish law both for taxation (which multinationals can minimize) and for access to people’s info. See this for example: http://www.radikal.com.tr/Radikal.aspx?aType=RadikalDetayV3&ArticleID=1044283
    This won’t happen if they can reach the company here. China also had this particular problem and I believe eventually coerced the US companies into cooperating.

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  2. Good, objective article, thanks. Like you’ve written, content filters should not be the job of government, but should be left up to individuals, families, NGO’s, private sector companies, etc.. One small point: according to technical people familiar with the matter, the “standard” filter will not allow users to bypass the government blocks as they can currently. For example, you can now make changes to your configuration to allow access to government-blocked sites. Once the filters are in place, you will not be able to do this. Hence, the filters – even the “standard” one – are actually introducing another level of blocking.

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  3. I strongly oppose any form of government control over the internet. By saying “Internet filters are used everywhere in the world. In my home country, the Netherlands, conservative Christians can for example download a programme that blocks all sites that insult God and are otherwise contrary to their beliefs.” it seems that you are trying to legitimise state intervention on internet. However, as you wrote, in Netherlands customers can download the filtering programme themselves, with their own will and practices, without the need of any state intervention to their own free rights to choose what content to filter.
    In addition, I really cannot understand why people are pushed to choose a filter anyway? I don’t care if the filter is called “standard”, it is still an internet filter the state is pushing its citizens to use. People should be able to make their own decisions if they want to use any kind of filtering for their internet usage. For instance, I would not mind if a conservative Muslim individual banned Richard Dawkins’s website. It’s his/her own individual practice and s/he is more than welcome to do so (although it would be very stupid of her/him to block Dawkins’s intellectual content on the internet).
    I think the most important thing to be mentioned about this internet debate is the indefinite right BTK holds to ban any website on the internet, which is very likely to lead to further bans which might as well include Google. I believe this is the thing that should thoroughly be criticised in this whole internet bans debate. I oppose any form of ban on any websites, including websites that show adult material. Individuals must have their own rights to choose which site they would like to visit and which they would not like to visit. If they wanted to watch porn they must be able to go on any website which content adult material, and then see anything they like. To me, an adult material website and Google are not different, they are both available on the internet and any internet user has right to use them or not to use them. Similarly, I did not react much to the proposed closure of “eksisozluk”. Many of the eksisozluk users reacted to this with “hey, but we comply with all the regulations, we cannot be shut down!” kind of comments, which are plainly simple and weak in argument. I condemn the hypocrisy in their approach to internet bans. When another sozluk “incisozluk” was shut down some time ago by BTK, many of the eksisozluk writers welcomed the news. They were accusing incisozluk of poor content, heavy use of slang and so on. Thus, they thought they justified the incisozluk ban, which was in fact rather ridiculous. But now, those then cheerful eksisozluk writers are on the frontlines of the protest against internet filters. I would like to see them showing a similar kind of attention towards all groundless actions of BTK. I am still hopeful of a proper stance in this internet issue though.
    To conclude, the protestors need to focus more on protesting total government control over the internet instead of only focusing on the relatively harmless filters. I would like to write more on this issue, but I have my exams coming up so I don’t really have time for it now. I hope at least I’ve added up something to the debate, best regards!

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  4. Another side effect of a government managed filter is that they get the ability to black out certain sites in within a very short time across the whole country without talking to any service providers. They can, for instance, block social networking sites and/or Google countrywide just before a big event such as elections or meetings, later claiming that it was “by mistake”.

    The fact that they are hiding the contents of the filters even from the service providers is also very open to misuse. The explanation they give is the “commercial value” of their filter database. Yes there are companies selling such categorized domain lists, but the government is not a commercial entity. If they force such a list upon all the users they can not hide information in the name of “commercial value of the database” even if they are paying to some external companies for the service.

    For instance, there is no guarantee that the “childrens” filter plan, which is the only whitelist based one, does not include some inappropriate site added to the whitelist “by mistake”. I can think of various sites that I do not want to be in this list. I wonder which plan will the schools use?

    Another point is that the regulation requires the service providers to report filter bypasses to the government. If the purpose is protecting the children, then this makes no sense. The service provider should be accountable to the customer for filtering. The government has no need to know whether users (children) are trying successfully or unsuccessfully bypass this service. The customers do need to know if their children are bypassing the filters or not. The users can change service providers or complain to the government if they find that filtering of a given provider is broken. The fact that the regulations explicitly ask the service provider to report to the government shows the real intention is far beyond protecting the children.

    There is also a mention of fines for not complying with the regulation. I am not a lawyer, but since the regulation covers both the subscribers and service providers, it seems to me that the subscribers may also end up being charged for bypassing the filters. There will always be ways to bypass filtering, but now even attempting to bypass the filters may be punishable, and the reports will go to the government. Lovely.

    Finally, this regulation is actually against the telecommunications law in which it is based on. The law requires a competitive environment to be established. By centralizing the filtering and mandating the way it should be done (IP/domain filters and hash databases, which is an inferior way, mind you) the government is actually stifling competition and putting companies that build filtering products and/or databases out of business.

    All in all, this *is* the death of the internet as we know it in Turkey. We arrived at this point slowly, in baby steps, and now the noose is tightening.

    Best regards …

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