James Madison, one of the founding fathers of the United States, had a good observation. “Of all the enemies to public liberty,” he noted, “war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded.” Because in war, he explained, “Discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people.”
That is why when Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan declared about two weeks ago that “Turkey is now in a war of liberation,” I knew bad things would follow. This was not a violent war, for sure, but only a political one. Yet it was still a mood that would expand the “discretionary power of the Executive.” It was still a mood that would further curb liberty in a country, which is, according to Freedom House, only “half-free.”
The Internet law that the government has just passed from Parliament is a good example of the trouble at hand. The law allows the president of the Telecommunications Directorate (TİB), a government agency, to make decisions to block websites for a “privacy violation” without seeking permission from a court. (Up to now, court decisions were necessary to block websites, and thousands were blocked for “immoral” or other “harmful” content.)
The reason why the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government is taking such a step is obvious: While I believe that the “independence” aspect of it is more propaganda than fact, there is factual a political war against the government, which is partly Internet-based. Wiretapped phone conversations between the prime minister and various businessmen or journalists are “leaked” onto the web occasionally, supporting the accusations of corruption and media manipulation.
The government believes that all these wiretappings were executed, archived and leaked by pro-Gülen elements within the police intelligence. They also believe that more could come, so they want to immediately block any website that commits “privacy violation.” (Meanwhile, one must note that a few private phone conversations of Mr. Gülen, exposing the discipline in his organization, have been leaked onto the web as well, in an apparent retaliation by pro-AKP elements.)
Here one must grant that violation of privacy is a real problem, and Turkey has seen bad examples of it, such as sex
tapes, some which have killed the political careers of opposition politicians. So, that part of the law is perhaps understandable. But what is privacy and what is not? And if the government has the right to decide on that, would this not be used to block any hidden fact whose exposure displeases the authorities?
Moreover, the law also has a second novelty, which is simply indefensible: It forces Internet service providers to keep records on web users’ activities for two years and make them available to authorities on request. The Big Government will be always watching you, in other words, and even without a court order.
The law will now go to President Abdullah Gül, who is apparently unhappy with all such authoritarian steps of the government. But even if he uses his veto power, the Parliament can send the exact same bill for his approval again, and this time he will have to approve it. We will see. But it is already clear that this current political war does nothing but harm Turkey’s economy and diminish its freedoms.