Saturday, August 6, 2011

Victory for Turkish Internet Users?

I'll be the first to admit it. I am shocked- happily surprised- by the latest news coming out about the plans to apply Internet filters. It would appear that the Turkish government is pulling back from this crazy plan. Could it really be possible that sensible minds prevailed?

According to the Wall Street Journal,

ISTANBUL—Turkey is stepping back from plans to toughen Internet censorship and will make it harder to ban access to websites, after the announcement of harsh new Internet laws triggered street protests and international criticism.

A plan to require Turkish Internet users to choose one of four state-mandated browsing filters starting this month has been scrapped, said Serhat Ozeren, head of the Internet Board at the Ministry of Transport and Communications, in an interview on Friday.

Instead, the government will roll out just two content filters—called Child and Family—for users who apply to use them. Users who don't apply will continue to have unfiltered access to available websites, according to the text of a new bylaw that replaced the previous plan on Thursday. The two filters should become available in November, the bylaw says.

The Internet Board, which is responsible for developing Internet policy and advising the ministry, is also drafting legal amendments that would limit the right of courts around the country to order websites blocked, Mr. Ozeren said.

Currently, any court can do so, under Turkey's law on internet crimes. An estimated 8,000 websites are now blocked in Turkey, according to an official familiar with the government's Internet policy.

When I asked a friend of mine what he thought, he said, "Hmm, we'll see."  Waiting for the other shoe to drop, I suppose.

I personally am glad to see that somebody was listening to wise counsel on this matter. In the end, restrictions of this kind never work as intended and usually lead to a lot of confusion. Even the announcement of the plan to implement the filtering system seemed poorly handled.

If the Turkish ruling party is serious about bringing  greater democracy to this country, then surely applying filters and arbitrarily closing websites would seem to be a step backwards.


  1. It's great news! Now I feel like an idiot for refusing to read the news lately...

    Though a part of me is with your friend, thinking "We'll see..."

  2. Bulent MurtezaogluAugust 6, 2011 at 7:43 PM

    This is not great news, really. Nothing that's happening now is reversed, it is just that what the gov't will force to happen has been delayed and modified. Note:

    1- It is still a gov't body who decides.

    2- The infrastructure required for such filtering will be implemented (they will force the ISPs) and it is no longer the nature of the 'net but the actions of the censorship committee that'll be defining the freedoms.

    3- WSJ is talking to the wrong people. How many and which sites are blocked is still secret but we know it is more than 8,000. lists 14k that they know about. People got a half-confirmation for 30k+ two months ago. This will not change but perhaps the new infrastructure will be used to truly block them now.

    4- The Turkish reports have the gov't people saying that a committee of bureaucrats will make blacklists 'scientifically' probably meaning that fully titled gov't academics will be involved. I am just throwing this in to observe that people who ordinarily automatically go 'atheist naturalist Darwinist positivist' towards those who happen to know a thing or two about science have no problem at all calling things 'scientific' when it suits them.

    Take all I say with a grain of salt (though except for '4' which is just me being grumpy they should check out). I no longer really follow what's going on. I'd welcome corrections, of course.

  3. I think my post left some room for doubt without being overly suspicious. Time will show, of course. It is, however, a very good test case to see if this government- against all evidence to the contrary- is really committed to openness and democratic values or whether this is merely another attempt at window dressing.

    When good news arrives, it is inevitably greeted with suspicion here. Nobody likes to be made a fool of by believing something that will probably turn out to be a sham. Everybody is ready to pick apart any advancement because it is far safer to doubt politician's motives than to trust anybody in power.

    One thing I noticed about Turkish culture dating back to the time I arrived is that there is a very deeply-ingrained distrust to all those who rule. A kind of persistent cynicism and disconnect by the people. I am sure that they have every reason to feel this way but, unfortunately, the problem with this attitude is that, ultimately, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. People tend to become resigned to the hopelessness and expect or demand nothing from their leaders because.. well, what's the point? Since their vote doesn't really count, they vote on their self-interest alone or for even more obscure reasons.

    I know you may sneer at this, but I'd like to keep an open mind about these developments, and wish the best for your country. Maybe that's a odd kind of American attitude- the America of the past anyway.

  4. Bulent MurtezaogluAugust 6, 2011 at 9:40 PM

    Oh, I think you are right. Especially the regular people with 'reaya' background may have historic reasons to be cynical about both the rulers and their bureaucrats (Ottoman, Republican or supposedly anti-Republican doesn't matter, 'hamam ayni hamam, sadece tellaklar degisik' is what we say). In this case, we have a lot of confirming evidence of course, some of which can be gotten by fact-checking what the top people say (about the way things are in the US too).

    While I am admittedly cynical, I had other reasons for saying what I said though. One of reasons why the implementation of the scheme is delayed is that it requires a modification to the ISP infrastructure to do it right. As you may have noticed with the regulars bans and blocking a hodge-podge of cheap and somewhat ineffective methods were being used. We may now get equipment that's put in place (by orders from the regulating authority) that enables more effective centrally-imposed blocking and incidentally/inevitably logging of the traffic. One way (out of a few) might be transparent proxies, for example. That change itself, however it is implemented, will make all blocking more effective and give the powers that be better tools for monitoring.

    I have a somewhat flawed analogy I used to use for non-technical people and I'll try summarizing it. Suppose that we had a mail system that worked the following way: Sacks of mail with just the destination post office written on them get processed. This is enough to 'route' mail, and if you want to 'block' a specific address, you just block the traffic to the appropriate post office (and hear howls from the 'innocent' or see people using c/o tricks to evade the block). It is cheap, easy, and nobody in that mail business is particularly motivated to money with the insides of the sacks. Suppose, now, finer grained control is imposed by the gov't. The mail companies will have to hire people to open the sacks, look at each and every envelope and take the ones with the 'bad' addresses out after consulting a list. The assurance we have is that the lists would be 'scientific' and the check would only apply to letters from addresses who wished for this to be done to their mail. Whethwer or not you trust the assurances, the fact remains that we now have the staff to do it, what was once hard/impossible to do is now possible thanks to the new staff/procedures and a line had been crossed with the intrusion into the contents of the sacks.

    The analogy is imperfect/flawed but might be sufficient to serve my present purpose. Was it?

  5. What can be done and what will be done are not necessarily the same, as you will admit. Just because it is technically possible to monitor and censor as you have described, is there solid evidence that this is what is planned? Or is it merely the possibility? Without intending to insult your country, it seems it would take a lot of organization and oversight in a country where those traits often seem lacking.

  6. Bulent MurtezaogluAugust 6, 2011 at 10:45 PM

    Up to a point until it met some backlash (domestic and foreign) people in or close to power were quite explicit in wishing this kind of control. I have even seen 'bir dugmeye basacagiz, hemen sayfa yasaklanacak' kind of promises/wishes at some point (they didn't have the infrasturcture under centralized control then, which this new step might get them). It isn't like these people got fired and replaced by social-libertarians or anything, it is just that they are now saying milder things. Besides, we still don't have official dislosure of the banned sites for example, and the man in charge himself was complaining than they were dislosing too much already (he'd rather have thinsg fail qiuetly with a cryptic error message rather than a page advertising the ban).

    I do think you are right about the Turkish attitude towards rulers etc. and I do admit that I too do have it (perhaps in exaggerated form) but there are reasons, at least in this case and cases involving control of information flow, that can be cited with a clear conscience. I don't, BTW, think the country getting worse in that regard. Note that we still have an active board who initiates proceedings against books. This climate (long-standing) is beginning to affect the 'net more and more. So it may get worse for the 'net as it is increasingly brought under local jurisdiction even if things were getting freer, in their own pace, in general.

    As for solid evidence even if I had it I couldn't tell you. (I don't have it, but I can tell you why I think I wouldn't be able to tell you anything if I did have it. What solid evidence in this case would entail, to my mind, would be meeting minutes of higher ups, what goes on in system rooms, knowledge of whish company is selling what kind of equipment to whom etc. Disclosing stuff like that can get you in trouble with the gov't or put in you in breach of contract due to non-dislosure agreements. As it is, I am -- and have been for some time -- fully outside the industry and of course am not close to the gov't so can shoot my mough off and speculate.)

    Let us just say that, it migth be good, given the immense and more or less unaccountable power the state has here, that people maintain a level of cynicism and skepticism. The rulers don't really listen to us much anyway, but the pairing of this kind of a powerful government with the widespread support of a trusting/compliant/obedient populace would hardly be a good thing. I suspect people well-versed in European history might be able to argue this point w/o involving their Turkish sensibilities or Turkey -- unfortunately I don't quite have that knowledge about Europe.

    What you say about organization and tracking sounds right for ordinary things, but for things the state is truly interested in, that deficiency tends to be adequately compensated for by heavy-handedness and ham-fisted broad hits.

  7. Bulent MurtezaogluAugust 6, 2011 at 10:49 PM

    Oh I suppose I should have given you this link before. Here's a recent interview by Yaman Akdeniz who I think is and has been doing good work and making it available in both languages:

  8. Thanks, Bulent, for expressing your opinion so eloquently.

  9. Bulent MurtezaogluAugust 7, 2011 at 6:14 PM

    Thanks for the compliment Nomad. As luck would have it, one of the English language dailies here has a piece about the board I mentioned above:

    Note how, even the people quoted in the article who oppose this board imply that it would be OK if the board was better qualified. Same themes: centralized government control, government experts, 'scientific' criteria, structures of power looking fine as long as the right people are running them etc. We are not even talking about smutty pictures or movies, this is about pieces of text. When this attitude meets the de-centralized, semi-anarchic net where seventeen-year-olds can give the virtual finger to duly titled and power hungry government experts, it is easy to imagine our masters and the licenced learned people reflexively going 'this cannot be allowed.' Perhaps it doesn't really happen that way, but the cartoonish description I just came up with seems to fit a lot of the facts.

  10. I thought you might enjoy reading this. Unfortunately the ending to this article tends to create more questions than it answers and many of her points are not fully explained. Still, it just shows how very complicated the subject is.

  11. Bulent MurtezaogluAugust 8, 2011 at 5:11 PM

    Hahaha, Nomad, do I strike you as someone who'd 'enjoy' a piece like that?

    I -- perhaps somewhat like Dedeoglu on AKP -- often say that Zaman and Today's Zaman exist and look half-way decent because many others representing the other pole are truly bad even for simple stuff like proof reading and whatnot. That doesn't absolve Zaman and the like from the responsibility for the things they do to the public discourse here, though. I would feel equally hesitant about going under the same roof with someone who works for that paper as I would for those who work for many of the others. So, that columnist, as far as I am concerned, is flattering herself by implying that there might be something wrong with people who react to her just because they react. It isn't that she is getting reacted to that's troubling, IMHO, but rather that the people who react to her and her paper see the other publications as more reliable sources. (On this very topic of gov't imposed filtering, Zaman and its ilk (it turns out she also works for Star, surprise surprise!) produced several columns explaining that the demonstration in Istanbul (which they attempted to downplay first) was likely set-up by manufacturers of filtering software. Anyone who takes paychecks from and provides punditry service to people who're capable of that kind of manipulative cheapness should expect to draw some reaction. We cannot buy ink by the barrel and respond in kind to the insults to our intelligence, but we sure as hell can show some non-violent reaction to the people who get paid for insulting our intelligence. This is not 'fascism.' In fact, it can be argued that reacting to people who run interference for the powers that be who do control the police is a good thing even when the reaction is somewhat baseless and ill-thought-out.)

    As you may have noticed, it is not just authority figures but also our press and comunists/pundits that draw suspicion and cynicism here. This too can be partially justified much in the same way as I attempted above with the additional twist that the evidence in this case is publicly available in those very same papers. I find it amazing that press people put on an innocent act about this and expect us to swallow it. EG, if she's wondering why people think they might be getting tracked through their credit cards, she should read her paper's and its parent organization's -- illegal -- coverage of people's phone conversations, private lives and the despicable behaviour of some of her fellow columnists on the MHP sex tape issue. Why act as though people have no reason to be afraid of intrusion, monitoring and tabs being kept on them? That papers like Sozcu etc. blow things out of proportion doesn't mean that people don't have any grounds for worry.

    Something similar goes for her implication about the baselessness of people's worries about drinking bans. I, too, think that for places like Izmir and parts of Istanbul the worries are overblown. OTOH, we do have a PM who recommended grapes instead of wine and who explicitly said 'kurusuna da sulusuna da karsiyiz.' (This is Istanbul street slag and implies illicit substances actually, but in that context it means smoking ('kuru') and drinking ('sulu')).

    As for people in Izmir not liking the AKP, one detail that may be missing is the 'gavur Izmir' allusion that this very PM attempted a while back. Her characterization that "when the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) came to power, the majority of its inhabitants developed a reaction against the governing party’s identity" is obviously true, but I checked and apparently people still remember that implied slur.

    Anyway you can tell how much I enjoyed that piece by the rant that it triggered.

  12. Bulent MurtezaogluAugust 9, 2011 at 11:09 PM

    Not that I am happy the occasion arose, but it did to provide an example for what I said above:

    What you say about organization and tracking sounds right for ordinary things, but for things the state is truly interested in, that deficiency tends to be adequately compensated for by heavy-handedness and ham-fisted broad hits.

    Think of the London riots[1]. As far as I can see, they are, just now after many days, talking about a police presence of some 16k in the city (contrast this with 30-40k 'cevik kuvvet' and like that they amass in Istanbul when they fear something might happen). The footage I saw had somewhat under-equipped cops, no gas, no panzers, no trucks/buses that double as people bulldozers/barriers and no water cannon. It appears outside of N. Ireland such equipment simply doesn't exist there and I imagine the interlocking barriers cops here in Istanbul occasionally line miles of roads with are not available in abundance either. Not that I am proud that Turkey has a high-ish tech riot control vehicle industry but we do (check out one of the locally manufactured TOMA thingies and you'll know what I mean). We have one because the state cares about crowd/riot control and the choices it makes come from a line of thought that dictates overwhelming (non-lethal) force and or a credible threat thereof will be available. Heaven forbid, if some kind of sustained rioting got triggered in Istanbul we would be talking about overuse of gas and water cannon or perhaps commenting about amateur footage of police using gratuitous violence on people they already have under custody/control etc. The issue wouldn't be the helplessness of the authorities but the heavy-handedness. This is what I meant.

    Comments are baing made, on the BBC, about the use of the 'net and especially portabe devices with social networking by the rioters. This sounded lovely to people when it was happening in Egypt but it is just a tool that any group can use. We'll see what emerges out of these experiences here and elsewhere and what's done to bits (zeros and ones) flowing down wires/fiber and through the air.

    [1] They wouldn't take place here in Istanbul like that in the first place as Turks in London showed.

  13. Recently I saw on Al-Jezeera a documentary about the crackdown on dissent in Bahrain following the democracy demonstrations. Apparently the government was using the government-controlled media (all) and the net, Facebook in particular, to pursue and eliminate the most vocal or high profile demonstrators. Doctors were being persecuted not for what they might have said, or even for what they did, but only for what they saw. The scenario was nightmarish and, given those challenges to free speech, your skepticism about the pullback ( including any other attempts to muzzle free discussion is probably warranted.
    By the way, this will be the last comment for this post. Bulent, if you would like to continue this subject, then I would strongly suggest you take a moment to begin your own blog and express yourself freely. Thanks again for your input.


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