No Internet without openness, says Neelie Kroes

Participants in a conference on “Online freedom in the information age,” a fringe event held yesterdaly at Bilgi University on the first day of the Internet Governance Forum in Istanbul, were unanimous in their concern about online freedom in Turkey.

Those taking part were Yaman Akdeniz, the university’s deputy rector and a legal expert on new media; Neelie Kroes, the European Union commissioner for the digital agenda; Agnès Callamard, the head of Columbia University’s Global Freedom of Expression Project; and Melih Kirlidoğ, a member of Turkey’s Alternative Informatics Association.

After reminding the audience that freedom of expression is protected by the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights and Turkey’s constitution, Kroes described Turkey’s blocking of Twitter and YouTube in the spring of 2014 as disproportionate and incompatible with human rights.

Pointing out that 80 per cent of the Turkish population connects to the Internet at least once a day, a figure that must make some EU member states jealous, she said: “Stopping people expressing themselves is futile, like telling women not to laugh in public.” The ears of ruling AKP spokesman Bülent Arinç must have been burning.

Callamard said Turkey found itself in a world in which the Internet is at the core of the information society and has become a key tool in the organization of mass demonstrations. Laws restricting online freedom of expression are being adopted all over the world, more and bloggers and online journalists are being jailed or killed and surveillance is now common.

But Callamard added that civil society and the courts in some countries are playing a growing role in resisting censorship and, like Kroes, she hailed the rulings condemning the blocking of Twitter and YouTube that Turkey’s constitutional court has issued.

Kirlidoğ voiced alarm about the extent of the censorship and surveillance in Turkey, which “no longer even aims to protect a system, but just a few individuals.” Key subjects such as corruption and the security situation in neighbouring Syria and Iraq are being increasingly difficult to cover.

The ensuing debate with the audience reflected widespread concern about mass surveillance after Edward Snowden’s revelations and about the borders between privacy and freedom of expression.

It is entirely legitimate to question the way foreign countries store personal data, but this should not be used as grounds for creating national Internets, Callamard said in response to a question.

Kroes said that it is the Internet’s open, frontier-less nature that explains its success and that the entire edifice is affected if you meddle with this openness and restore the borders.

Let’s hope the Turkish authorities got the message. Turkey is sinking steadily in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index and is currently ranked 154th out of 180 countries. Turkey’s active civil society deserves better.