Is the Gothenborg-based NetClean software as innocent as it is presented or is it used for silencing political dissent?
Are Turkey’s notorious attempts to limit freedom of expression on the Internet adopting yet another powerful tool? This is the question that comes to mind when reading the news of the Swedish digital security company NetClean’s possible deal with the Turkish government. It was announced on a pro-government media outlet, Daily Sabah, that the government is to purchase the software for €40 million in order to combat “unwanted content” in the digital public space. As usual, the excuse given to cover the censorship is “child pornography.”
Since last year’s Gezi Park protests and protesters’ intensive use of social-media tools to organize and regroup, Turkey’s government has been taking steps – including a full ban – to discourage millions from using social media to spread political dissent and criticism of government policies. As all other forms of public space and media are under almost absolute control of the governing AKP, social-media platforms and the Internet still serve as the only tool citizens have to express themselves with a degree of freedom.
The head of the Turkish government, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, declared that Twitter was a “menace to society, to all societies,” upon which the government began seeking new ways to prevent the use of the platform for political criticism. The excuse presented was that “all kinds of immorality takes place there, families get separated; this is against the party’s conservative agenda.”
By definition, NetClean presents itself as a company working on software that aims to create a more secure society in the digital sphere by scanning, analyzing and blocking content. Moreover, its primary goal is supposedly to fight child pornography. The software is purchased by governments and ISPs around the world. Yet at what expense?
When one considers the world map of censorship and surveillance, it is not hard to guess which countries would be among the top buyers of this software. The software extends the effects of censorship a step further than WhiteBox initially did. WhiteBox is a software application based on URL blocking that allows users to browse content through filters, using DNS spoofing and ban lists of unwanted URLs. While WhiteBox can be used globally to combat child pornography, various governments have declared intentions to purchase even more advanced software to block content in real time.
In Turkey’s case, one has to remember Prime Minister Erdoğan’s approach to social media platforms, calling them a “source of immorality” and threatening to “eradicate twitter-mwitter all of them.” Moreover, it is important to remember that Turkey’s top general called social media “a threat to state order.”
Last December was a month of chaos for Turkey’s intelligence service. Not only did the intelligence service fail to prevent the spread of news of Turkey’s biggest corruption fiasco yet, but it also proved incapable of detecting the source of the information leak. The leaked sound recordings were allegedly of the Prime Minister’s phone calls with several people, asking for bribes and telling his son to hide the money before a police raid. Although Turkey’s top science institute declared that the sound recordings were a montage, sound/video clips continued leaking and circulating online for months.
Upon the intelligence service’s inability to combat such information leaks, the governing party AKP passed a controversial censorship bill in the parliament in February, allowing state officials to ban Web sites with a simple order, with no requirement of a court warrant or statement of a reason for the blocking. Although this action is in direct violation of the European Convention on Human Rights and the Constitution of the Republic of Turkey, the government has repeated its intention to block “unwanted content” and even remove it from the Web.
Currently Turkey leads the world in demands for removal of content from global digital corporations, even though in most cases these demands are in violation of freedom of expression or the right to acquire information. If the Turkish government showed more respect for democratic governance and human rights, perhaps use of this software would not have caused this level reaction from notable intellectuals, academics, NGOs and individual citizens. But censorship always seems to wear the mask of providing more security, while in fact stripping citizens of yet more liberties.
A question that needs to be answered is why Sweden, a country that claims to promote human rights and stand up for human dignity globally, has agreed to sell software that will obviously target political opposition in Turkey. Looking at current uses of censorship mechanisms in Turkey, it can be seen that content regarding Armenian newspapers, Kurdish political movements, LGBT rights and lifestyle, opposition parties’ Web sites and critical articles, anti-racist Web sites, etc. have been banned. One can’t help but wonder how many of these groups Sweden supports as a nation, yet will contribute to repressing in Turkey… Moreover, when one considers the fact that the company was founded with donations from Queen Sylvia of Sweden, the question arises of what statement Sweden’s royal head of state is making.
Lastly, it might make one issue very clear: Turkey is one of the top countries for censorship of pornography, yet also tops the charts for searches for porn content. The Turkish government cooperates with global allies to combat child pornography, yet unfortunately Turkey is the leading country when it come to searches for child porn. Obviously blocking access or applying censorship does not solve a sociological problem emerging from a mentality of prohibition in the country. If the Turkish government were sincere in protecting children, would it not be more useful to prohibit child labor and child marriage and imprison pedophile rapists rather than letting them go? When children are subjected to bullying and violence on the streets, in schools, and at home and are killed by policemen on streets, how sincere is the government’s attempt to implement a censorship policy with the excuse of combating child pornography when at the same time it declares political dissent illegal?
Many governments use the excuse of protecting children, but somehow the policy rapidly turns into a centralized structure of censorship and surveillance – a system of digital detention of citizens. While decentralization of the Internet is vital for the spread and defense of our liberties and knowledge as global citizens, governments’ policy of blocking access, removing content and censoring the Internet is the greatest obstacle to the advancement of democratic governance globally.