September 2014 has brought the digital focus of the world on Istanbul alongside many people involved in the liberation of Internet and those trying to turn it into a secured money making machine. Internet Governance Forum is what all this agenda revolves around in fact. Months ago when announcement for applications to present panels during the IGF 2014 were made, many digital rights & liberties advocates and activists applied to be there to make their voices heard. Lest, the controversies might have begun then… The “multistakeholder” wording might just be not the right word perhaps.
The initial irony of having the IGF in Istanbul is one thing, and not letting digital rights activists to present their views just adds to the pile of controversies that filled the IGF week. The opening remarks have been made by the host country Turkey’s state representatives with the participation of Istanbul governor and ministers. Basically a lot of number bombardment took place every time ministers or Turkish bureaucrats have taken the microphone, giving detailed numbers regarding internet usage in Turkey without ever mentioning the applications regarding freedom of speech or right to acquire information; however abundantly mentioning cyber-security, alas not in the way I would like to hear. In the end, the welcoming remarks ended up being a bad defense of censorship and surveillance and right after “data” has been likened to “petroleum of future”, cyberwarfare and cyber armies have been mentioned.
Multiplification of the profit
A long echoing of multistakeholders references began after Turkish minister opened the floor and whoever took the stage, continued simply in explaining multiplification of the same point of view that internet is about economy and that even though surveillance and censorship is present as mechanisms of interference with the market that internet should be turned into a money making “sector” rather than staying free and be a platform of liberal values. Of course there were other exceptional approaches towards the end when much fewer people remained in the main hall; for example Neelie Kroes’ speech on keeping the internet free and open was inspiring. And Ivo Ivanovski’s remarks on the extended approach to internet was remarkable as well. Ivanovski stated the lack of ministerial representation except for the IT and telecom ministers from various countries at the event.
Ivanovski was complaining that there were not enough participation from other legs of state apparatus, however the ones that were there already represented the interests and aspirations of state ideology perfectly fine in my opinion. Most state representatives focused more and more on regulating the internet and interfering with the free atmosphere. Cyber security seems to have opened great doors for so many people as the amount of energy and funding being pooled in this “sector” seems to be ever-growing and the idea of having a free & secure internet seems to bring an image of “a policeman at every doorstep” to so many people’s minds. In my opinion, the intentions to regulate internet at such high levels is equal to interventionist principles, an attitude which has crippled many countries’ economies in the past.
Problem of regulating the Internet
When it comes to regulating the internet, I like what Jan Kleijssen from the Council of Europe said: “It’s not the internet that has to be regulated, it’s the behaviour of the governments concerning freedoms and liberties”. Internet as I see it should be less government, and definitely more liberty. The advocates of more security fail to realize that by assigning a cyber-security officer at each connection point is a useless and wasteful investment which does not guarantee anything more than annoyance, disturbance and loss of quality in online services.
As the “kids” at IGF have put it wisely, the adults should be responsible for their safety and not act in paranoid and cover up the whole world with cotton walls in order to protect the youth from the world. By being responsible the children at IGF referred to themselves being granted opportunities to learn what is bad content and to protect themselves from harmful people on the internet, and how to cope with crisis situations. Yet, obviously the point of view to put up walls and protect societies from information and knowledge seems to be a much more shared view among those who have more say in decision making phase of internet governance.
While the local rights and liberties advocates and activists have not been granted panel presence as much as governmental or corporate representatives, there have been some rights based discussions and forums during the IGF. Even though the Turkish authorities repeatedly stated that they have not been involved in turning down the local NGOs applications, it started to seem suspicious especially when one could hear the [Turkish] security guards at the entrance wholeheartedly trying to discourage civilian participation to the IGF in order to be able to comment live on the panel presentations.
In the limited number of panels on digital rights and human rights on the internet, lots of discussions have taken place on access to internet, freedom of the internet and net neutrality alongside many other important and crucial topics. While geographically participants have seemed to been rather divided, the geo-centric approaches to rights and liberties for sure will be overcome by further discussion and participation to such international conferences. A global approach to cosmopolitan understanding of the internet is a crucial matter for rights based usage of internet in a an atmosphere of liberty.
Rapidly growing countries and censorship
Among the things that have come to my attention and I believe should be listed are Brazil’s “Internet Bill of Rights” in 2014, which is crucial to have especially before IGF2015. However, when listening to participants from Brazil, I could not help but draw conclusions from the fact that there is invisible censorship in Brazil, just like India, Turkey and many other rapidly developing countries in the G20. The similarities seemed dire, especially when thinking the state representatives from these countries focusing on keeping their relative societies in “line” and protecting citizens from the internet!
What about corruption?
When an individual thinks of being protected, s/he should also consider asking “from what”. As it so coincidentally happens, many of the countries that are fervent advocates of censorship on the internet, also happen to be countries where political elite has come to be talked of with people guilty of or related to corruption cases. This controversy raises suspicion when one considers why a government that is popularly voted by the people of a country would indulge in such actions if there is nothing to hide! Or, if a state has nothing to hide from her citizens, why is there problems with transparency regarding taxpayers’ money when it comes to governments using the funds without proper authorization.
Transparency reports from several international corporations show that national governments turn to content removal requests when censoring content is not enough to stop spreading of certain content. Censorship through URL blocking and applying set-backs in broadband capacity may be working on a national basis, however when scandalous content gets leaked on a website and can be copied and redistributed by someone outside the national legislation, this poses a threat to a government that tries to preserve itself from accusations of corruption.
Alternative Internet Ungovernance Forum
As many digital rights and liberties activists and NGOs have been turned down in presenting their panels at the IGF, there has taken place a parallel forum in Istanbul at Bilgi University’s Santral Campus. Alternative Informatics Society has called for participation to UGF on the last two days of IGF. When compared, one could see that while IGF was a place for lobbying and secretive private meetings among people that rarely get together physically in the same place, UGF has been the place where one could actually see a forum laying out, with rooms filled with audience.
On the other hand, I believe that boycotting the IGF is not a good idea; mainly because the NGOs and rights activists need to make their voices heard rather than keeping distant to the people who must hear them. Even though I can understand the disappointment and discouragement in some organizations and activists, I believe especially they should have been present in the first three days of the IGF, if they have not.
Yet, it was a great opportunity to listen to the panels at UGF, as they have been very vibrant, informative and inspiring… Especially for the fact that the local activist networks have been able to present themselves and the situation in Turkey in a passionate manner and that truly has been captivating for our friends from around the world. For that reason, I believe actually UGFs could start being incorporated into IGF weeks in wherever they take place from now on, if IGF boards are not willing to accept local activist networks’ and rights advocates’ proposals to present the local situation in global context.
One last comment about UGF must be on the unfortunate disconnection of Edward Snowden who was supposed to give the closing remarks online to the audience in Istanbul, but could not make it due to technical problems on his side, and sent a written statement to UGF participants.
Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today. I apologize for not being able to speak to you by video conference. Last-minute technical problems have made that method of communication impossible.
I’d like to take this opportunity, before an audience of activists, academics and journalists in Istanbul to discuss the relationship between censorship and surveillance, which are in many ways two sides of the same coin. The Turkish people are subject to both of these technically assisted forms of state manipulation, although the former has received far more attention than the latter.
When governments censor their citizens’ access the Internet, they not only trample on basic human rights, but they also make it much easier for foreign governments to gain access to those domestic communications. For censorship equipment to be able to function, domestic traffic must flow through it. This equipment is a natural target for nation-state intelligence agencies. If they can hack into and compromise the censorship equipment, they get access to all of the communications that flow through it. It only takes one security flaw or an intentionally placed backdoor in a censorship device to transform it from a tool of domestic oppression to a trojan horse for foreign government surveillance.
In the past few years, several governments have started to openly question their reliance on foreign-made communications technology, whether 4G telephone network equipment made by Huawei, or Internet switches made by Cisco. The national security arguments against foreign-made networking technology apply equally to foreign-made censorship technology. When governments install censorship equipment at the core of their national communications networks, how can they be sure that they’re not also inviting in a foreign intelligence service?
In an ideal world, governments would respect the free speech rights of their citizens enough to not filter their Internet communications. Sadly, we do not yet live in that world. Perhaps in time, governments will realize that the serious cybersecurity and foreign-surveillance threats posed by censorship equipment outweigh whatever supposed benefits of national stability and control that they bring.
To all of those present who struggled in Gezi Park, to those who struggle at the Ungovernance Forum today, thank you for your support and your solidarity. You have my support and solidarity. — Erward Snowden https://www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/assets/es-statement-ungovernance-forum-sept-5.pdf
Instead of Snowden, a surprise guest was to give a speech and connection was being established. When prior to the beginning of the closing speech, connection was being tried and the audience briefly heard who was coming up, it was hard to detect from one dry “hello”. When the screen was later turned on, to everyone’s surprise it was the Wikileaks chief, Julian Assange himself speaking in front of a page of information on NATO documents.
Pirates in Istanbul
Living in the land of censorship, surveillance and lack of freedom of expression and right to acquire information, we have been utterly pleased to have this week of opportunities to meet our international counterparts as well as important decision makers who seemed to support us at least in one way or another. But the most important participation for me this week came from the Pirate Parties International, that organized a conference in Istanbul under the title of ThinkTwice2. Dozens of Pirates from various countries have had the chance to meet at the crossroads of continents for the first time, almost like an atmosphere reminding us of a micro-International.
ThinkTwice2 was host to internationally known pirates such as Julia Reda (Pirate Party Germany MEP) and Birgitta Jonsdottir (Pirate Party Iceland MP) alongside many representatives from various other countries. Throughout the week there has come and gone other pirates and we have had the chance to hold our first international meeting in Istanbul with the participation of local pirates. Many issues have been talked of, and we have had a lot of inspiration and encouragement regarding the future of combat against censorship, surveillance, bans, copyright, and of course the human rights abuses in the country, especially in terms of digital rights and liberties.
Surveillance in Turkey takes another step right after IGF
As the week of IGF meetings have passed and the international representatives went back home, Turkish government announced the intentions to pass yet another surveillance bill, bringing everyone’s browsing and internet habits data into the hands of the telecommunications directorate (TIB), which is directly linked to prime minister. New bill expands the scope of influence by TIB which will be profiling all citizens’ digital identities -going even beyond mass surveillance- and will have the authority to block access to any website without a court order.
As the new bill suggests, prime minister of Turkey will have the authority to switch off internet when need be -facing a threat to national security or disturbance in public order. However exaggerated this statement might seem, the lack of definition of “threat to national security” gives the government to declare any kind of incident as such. If one is to remember president Erdoğan’s declaration of Gezi Park activists as coup plotters, anyone might get declared a digital terrorist and internet will not be an available means of communication in such a case. Moreover, what constitutes “disturbance to public order” in Turkey might actually be any kind of minor protest even, as this now has turned into a country where people are ordered to protest only at a “designated protest area in the middle of heavily surveilled and police secured space”.
The discussions regarding a new law were raised right after the SOMA mining tragedy in May 2014 when 302 miners died in a terrible “accident” due to lack of security measures not taken by mining company that was given reports of quality for work place safety standards. The new bill ended up focusing on suppressing freedom of speech, which has long been seen as a problem by the government of Turkey and there had been declarations of broadcast bans right after any fiasco that the government has indulged in. The new bill as an update to censorship and surveillance bills, will enable the government with furthering of blanket bans as well as profiling of all citizens in terms of ethnic, religious, sexual, political, etc identities or affiliations.
Yet, this is the government that has started the IGF talking about the importance of protecting citizens from freedom of speech, and raised the bar in shamelessly defending censorship and surveillance. As that would not be enough to make the whole country laughing stock of the world with this approach, at the news hour, media -99.9% of which has a kind of affiliation with the government- has showed the world’s support for Turkey’s internet policies, as they had come to Turkey to show solidarity. If only we the human rights advocates and rights and liberties activists had the same kind of means and solidarity to support eachother in globally standing against state interventions to human rights principles.