Free as in Internet

At the moment, I'm on holiday in Turkey, and the beauty of the scenery and the sea is accompanied by the ugly news about new regulations for Internet, which are to be introduced with a new telecommunications law. In a nutshell, the turkish government has decreed that anyone getting an internet connection here has to make a choice between a number of filters. These filters range from the very restrictive, which is for families with small children and block access to all kinds of possibly indecent content, to the standard, which only filters the stuff which the government has deemed insuitable for any turkish citizen. You can choose between these filters when you get an internet connection, but the thing is that you have to choose one; if you don't choose one, you will get the standard filter.

Although the responsible authorities (especially the Information and Communication Technologies Authority, whose name reminds one of a communist apparatus) tried to downplay the extent of these filters, and kept on saying that "you can choose", there were a number of things that caused the netizens of Turkey to get anxious about the future of internet in Turkey, and stage a protest. The most important of these reasons is that you can't really choose; there is always a default filter. Also, turkish authorities famously banned Youtube and Blogger citing really ridiculous reasons, making two of the most used platforms for expression of free speech on the net unavailable for all its citizens. Youtube is now reachable from Turkey, but 6 thousand more websites are still banned, and it's not even possible to get a list of the banned sites.

The more frightening thing is that this broad move to get internet usage under control in Turkey is part of a bigger trend of archaic restrictions to free speech. Here are two things that happened recently. A magazine published by a group consisting of the best cartoonists in Turkey was fined a huge amount of money, and now it will end publication because the publishers simply can't pay the fine (read about it here, in turkish). The justification for this fine claimed that the magazine "incited the Turkish people to laziness and adventurism". Another thing that happened around the same time is that a popular website named Eksi Sozluk —the "sour dictionary", a kind of forum which functioned like a dictionary, gathering people's opinion around different topics— was subpoenad for the data of the users who had written some stuff on entries about religion. They hadn't even written anything particularly obnoxious; they just criticized religion in general and Islam in particular. These users were afterwards invited to the attorney's office to get questioned about this horrible crime of criticizing religion on a public forum. An example of intolerance not against written words but against art is the removal of a statue dedicated to the Armenian mass murder after the prime minister called it butt-ugly.

Why is it that such astonishingly reactionary and intolerant policies, in a time when the rest of the muslim world is struggling to get rid of decades old ruling structures which imposed exactly such limitations, can be attempted and then carried out without any serious reaction? I think the recent surge in state-sponsored intolerance towards non-state-sanctioned opinion has two underlying reasons. Fundamentally, the social rhetoric of the turkish republic has never been one that recognized the importance of freedom of opinion. The laws concerning this space were always vaguely stated, containing politically archaic and extremely reactionary references to "Turkishness" and the "inseperable unity of the turkish nation and state". This allowed the judiciary to selectively shut down uncomfortable channels, handing out horrible sentences to people who simply stated certain opinions (the best known case is Ismail Besikci, who spent 17 years in prison for writing about the Kurdish population) or dared to report on the "enemy", whoever that was at any point in history. The standard opinion about freedom of speech has been that it is of course a good thing, but it does not mean that everyone is allowed to say whatever he wants, and that this would lead to some kind of a chaos.

The restrictions on the freedom of speech had eased in the last few years due to pressure from the EU, but the new harshness came despite this pressure. This harshness derives, in my opinion, from the fact that the party which has been ruling for nearly a decade now, and recently won an election in a land slide, belongs to the conservative-religious right. This political movement embodies an even more distancing attitude towards organizing freedom as a fundament of free society, abhorring certain practices (like the consumption of alcohol) and intellectual streams to a point of obsession. It was of course foreseeable that they would act on these obsessions once in power. The sentiment against atheists among the conservative muslims of Turkey, for example, is a mixture of disgust and deepest pity; I have had the privilege of being treated accordingly a number of times in my life, though I was never as unlucky as people who got beaten up because they dared to eat during Ramadan. Another example is how the turkish president called Twitter and Facebook, two of the most significant social media tools which let people 'say whatever they want', 'ugly technologies' at an election meeting (here, in turkish) —I learned of this, by the way, through the caricature magazine which had to close down.

Where does this leave Turkey and the turkish internet users? In a very difficult situation, obviously, since the government which proposed the new laws had such a decisive victory in the recent elections. It means that there still a lot of political work to do when it comes to even the most basic principles of freedom of speech. It must be kept in mind, however, that the challenges to the accepted notions of freedom of speech presented by the internet are not a serious problem only in Turkey; the french president Sarkozy is also working on a new proposal for regulation of the internet —he calls it the civilised internet— and the US is continuously coming up with new ways to filter, supervise and shape the internet and what goes on in it. Freedom of speech is far from being a closed and finished topic, and its borders are re-negotiated in all societies in the face of change. Some have been doing this long enough to afford the luxury of a free internet, at least for a while.