Finally, censorship in Turkey gets a mention at the IGF

We could not miss an event scheduled for the last day of the IGF, a round table on online freedoms and access to information on the Internet in which several Turkish activists were due to participate. Until then, the subject of online censorship in Turkey had been conspicuous by its absence. Was it now going to be addressed head on, and thoroughly?

Surprisingly, it was. Human rights lawyer Gönenç Gürkaynak said Turkey was a world leader in content withdrawal, as the latest Google and Twitter transparency reports confirm. Serhat Koç of Turkey’s Pirate Party said “the Turkish government has, for one of the first times in the world, used DNS hijacking” to thwart a widely-used method of censorship circumvention.

Aslı Tunç, a professor of Bilgi University, said social media play a key role in informing the Turkish public about the growing control of the traditional media and the harassment of journalists. Lawyer and activist Selin Kaledelen said entire websites are often blocked under Law 5651 on the Internet because of one problematic content. Serhat Koç pointed out that the National Assembly played a major role in drafting these laws and should therefore be an important target of campaigning and lobbying.

The participants were split over the decision to hold the IGF in Turkey. Some thought it was ironic and inappropriate. Others thought it provided a unique opportunity for Turkish civil society to make its voice heard and for the international community to acquaint itself with local problems.

The activist Serdar Paktin said he had not really felt able to talk about Turkey during the past few days of the IGF.

Aside from a few references and the round table organized by the Freedom Online Coalition, the censorship and surveillance orchestrated by Turkey’s regulator and intelligence services were far from getting the place they deserved at the Istanbul IGF. It must be said that the UN guidelines for the event explicitly forbid “singling out individual persons, companies, countries or entities”.

There was an interesting debate about the limits of the participative process between governments, private sectors companies and civil society (“multistakeholderism”) on which the IGF is based. Several participants said “the participative process is what each of us makes of it” and that NGOs reinforce each other by networking and by sharing experiences. Some said that the main challenge was getting civil society to play a bigger part.

But Nate Schenkkan of Freedom House said what many of us had felt all week, namely that governments are able to promote their views without restriction at the IGF but NGOs are not able to distribute reports presenting an alternative vision. Some stakeholders are clearly “more equal than others.” Freedom House prepared a report on Internet censorship for the occasion but Schenkkan was not allowed to distribute it within the IGF conference centre.

What should be done when some of the stakeholders are not playing fair? How can governments be called to account when they break the free speech pledges given when the IGF was created in Tunis? These questions need answering.

We asked if there were any representatives of the UN, IGF or Turkey’s High Council for Telecommunications (which hosted the IGF) present in the room who could tell us if these questions would receive any response at next year’s IGF, whether discussion of online censorship would continue to be confined to the conference centre’s small rooms, and whether anything would ever be done instead of just talk.

But none of these institutions had a representative in the room. We were on our own.