Controversies of Digital Freedom in Turkey

Understanding of freedom in Turkey has never been based on solid grounds with a proper meaning that includes everyone at the same level.  A whole nation has never actually experienced guaranteed freedom in anything except for submission to the will and command of the state and governments. Lately a new discussion has emerged in a series of internet restrictions. According to a new proposal by BTK (Council of Information Technologies) all hosting companies are supposed to ban at least 135 names that may imply pornography. The list includes several names like Adrianne and words such as blonde, school, young, animal, fat, confession, story, breath etc.

There is no obvious reason why these words and others that include such words in them could be banned. There is also no primary source to be blamed about the list of words to be banned. BTK prefers absolute anonymity when it comes to citing references. As a result, the hosting companies are forced to implement restriction without questioning and if they do not they can face financial fines and even worse, court trials.

Not a few days passed and another institute that is related to BTK declared that all internet users must use a protection as content filter that would be supplied by their ISPs. All ISPs will be given four different protection filters; child, family, national, standard. These filters may seem rather innocent in the beginning but it also has a guaranteed protection mechanism.

The filters can be edited by the state whenever and however it is wished to be. None of the users can have any say on what content to be made illegal, and what content to be published. Although the responsible people may announce that there will be no change for current standard filter users, the banning of web sites already has a dark past in Turkey.


The directives regulating the internet for Turkish users have been based on vague grounds and since the first day certain conservative-nationalist groups have abused the restriction laws.  The laws and regulations are too open for interpretation and result in a chaotic practice in the end. Whenever there is any criticism towards government, state, nationalism or mainstream religion such groups start getting louder and invite courts to take action for banning websites that contain the criticism.

When YouTube was first banned it was because there were videos that insulted Atatürk and such an action is a crime in Turkey. In order to stop Turkish users’ access to that video, the whole website was banned and right to obtain information was limited. After a while, when the ban was lifted, freedom only lasted a few days. Soon enough there came another ban on YouTube without any explanation. Many thought that there was another insult to Turkishness or Turkish values. Some hypothesized that the Christians and Jews acted in sacrilegious activities towards Muslims on the site. And yet another big group of internet users believe that restrictions are due to severe criticism of the current government and the best way to cope with them seemed like shutting down focal points that attract many users.

As YouTube is the most popular websites that the Turkish users visit for watching videos online, it has started to become popular for opposition to publish videos and documentaries about the governmental fiascos. No only YouTube but also blog sites have also got their share in terms of restrictions. Some bloggers got arrested, some blogs being shut down entirely and every now and then a blog server being denied access to for hosting “criminal content”, freedom of expression and right to information are being limited in Turkey almost constantly.

New Media under control

The process is explained as paving the way to “safe internet” but what is defined as safe is a recipe of government-friendly voices’ list of trustable websites and services online. When Turkey is just on the verge of establishing e-state services, such restrictions on the internet and filtering of content leaves the whole country close to Iran and China in freedom-index. Turkey is listed as one of the severest censure states, and the press freedom index shows that the “f” word is still a taboo for Turkish press.

Print media in Turkey has suffered censure, auto censure, restrictions and threats for decades since the establishment of republic. There have been few attempts to act radically and democratize the system itself but they have backfired sooner or later. There is a usual process in doing that; first there is warning the media bosses, then declaring extra tax payments or fines for the media corporation and lastly forcing media bosses to go out of business and take over the business, shifting the political stand of a paper.

However with the emergence of new media, old fighting methods could not catch up with the pace of internet. Columnists, authors, opposition leaders and discontent public in general started criticizing online and not only a limited number of people read them; they could reach out to millions thanks to expansion of social media.

As social media penetration in Turkey is above 99% at the moment, it would turn the country into a chaos if all content and websites were blocked in a way similar to YouTube. So the best decision was to pick out content to be blocked and banned, and label it as “safe internet to protect children and youth” (it is important to mention that Turkish government considers people under 24 to be young and in need of state protection when it comes to choosing anything, especially what content to view on internet and what kind of beverages to consume).

Current practice is referred to as an innocent attempt to protect children from rising pedophilia, and the government and BTK find it as the most effective method of fighting with something, blocking and banning everything. If there is no internet actually the numbers of online abuse would vanish into thin air, there would be none left!

However, no matter how good intentions one might have, enabling such an opportunity to make a list of safe internet content and websites to protect youth might turn into something else in a short while, something tyrannical! When the infamous article 301 “insult to Turkishness to be declared as criminal activity” was first legalized, similar protest was made but it passed anyways. It has cost life of Hrant Dink and expatriation of several Turkish intellectuals and artists with the law’s abuse. Now the “safe internet” policy is being presented as something vague, not important and even for the good of everyone’s children but no one can see exactly what the government might do some day with all the powers they have been collecting to one institution and one only!

Back to Plato

Since ancient times it has been one of the most debated issues and I used to side with Plato at some point. The philosopher king used to sound very wise until seeing the actual practice. Although not a philosopher, our system hardly creates anything more than a Sultan and that sultan right now is proposing laws that will eventually serve very anti-democratic, open to interpretation and abuse of certain oppressive groups. No matter what happens, power corrupts and it is inevitable!

The proposal to limit people’s likes and thoughts dates back to antiquity and Turkish government really believe that if they ban all the “harmful” content from the internet alongside any kind of opposition or implication of any other possible lifestyle than theirs, they will eventually succeed in transforming whole of the Turkish society into their ideal conservative-nationalist “flock”. Even though it will not be them right away this term, it will be the next term that somebody will use this opportunity to try and shape the people’s lives against their will. Leaving open doors for interpretation in the laws is a dangerous element in such societies that are prone to radicalization easily.

Ancient logic actually surpasses Platonic philosophy in Turkey. Turkish politics is based on Melian dialogue and Thucydides’s explanation: “the powerful will do what they can; the weak will suffer what they must!” In Turkish case, the government with over 60% parliamentary majority (although they obtained less than half of the votes in the national elections last time) can do whatever they wish and no opposition can stop them from doing anything.

Even if the state and government would have purely good intentions and nothing about restricting the people’s freedom, it is still wrong to actualize George Orwell’s 1984 in real life as nanny-state in fact shoot herself in the foot. Blinded citizens of a Disney country might as well survive in the cartoons and nothing more. If state needs to educate competitive citizens that can actually achieve success globally, this is not the way to go. Let the people free so that they can actualize themselves, so that they are not shocked to hear other worlds, so that they do out cast themselves out when facing their comrades from other countries. And if control and restriction is decided to be the best method of raising up a flock of nationals, then state will need even more control than just the current ones as Turkish culture manages to go around restrictions no matter what the consequences are.

Surveillance State

Turkish politicians will criticize other politicians and especially ones from other countries, a lot. Most recently Libya and Egypt have been the focus of criticism from Turkish members of the parliament and especially the prime minister. Before that same people would cite Russia, China, Korea and Cuba (but never Iran) for restricting people’s freedom and acting as surveillance states. Out of fear of a leftist movement, Turkish governments have tried to act in very similar ways to prevent a “communist uprising” and declared all the social democrats as traitors in times. Still it is possible to find such left phobic politicians right in the parliament. They are unable to understand democratic approach and process of democratization; otherwise they would not wish to eliminate left parties as a whole.

Some years ago when a French MP offered to connect IDs and internet activities many people declared her as control-addict and simply stupid for making such remarks. Many politicians thought freedom could not be limited in such a way, and internet serves as a great potential for actualizing freedom in practice. In the recent years though, her dreams started coming true step by step and today Turkish government can propose a law that says “state should have all the sources she needs to survey citizens’ internet habits and record their telephone conversations without any prior consent”. And not only can they propose such laws or regulations but also tell people that it is not a big deal and they should conform to that for it serves a greater purpose, which is security.

With this image of a multi-headed Leviathan, every kind of government has scared the people and the so-called democratic AKP is doing nothing different. They do not use the traditional images of Leviathan but new ones, they create new enemies when necessary and build further restrictions and ban more freedoms which seem to serve transformation of the society rather than protection of all (against themselves).

All in all, I find it hardly believable that the government is sincere in their promise of “advanced democracy” as the practice shows vice versa. Life definitely gets easier and better for conforming few but in general oppression and restriction of citizens is breaking new records in the level of abuse and maltreatment. Internet is the last harbor for Turkish society, similar to heroes of the Arab Spring. What Mubarak and Qaddafi could not manage, Turkish government is doing from today, hoping that it will resolve the unhappening revolutions before they even begin. It might be a good reminder to add; a Turkish proverb goes, “water finds its way”…

Gürkan Özturan


This entry was posted in Evaluation, Social Media, Surveillance State, Turkey. Bookmark the permalink.

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