A war against the Internet ‘is one the state cannot win’
ISTANBUL – Hürriyet Daily News
‘Turkey has the world’s youngest Internet users: 50 percent of the total is in the 15–35 age group, and there is serious saturation in this group,’ says Kuzuloğlu. HÜRRİYET photo, Emre YUNUSOĞLUThe Internet cannot be overcome by the state and there is always a backdoor in the event of efforts to ban it, according to technology expert Serdar Kuzuloğlu.
“I can understand the state not willing to leave this space alone. This has logic, but the spokespersons of the government use such ambitious rhetoric and have such huge dreams that they can’t substantiate it,” Kuzuloğlu, one of the pioneers in the Turkish newspapers’ efforts to go online in the 1990s, told the Hürriyet Daily News.
He particularly noted that YouTube had remained one of the five most visited sites in Turkey throughout the period when it was banned.
Can you tell us Turkey’s experience with the Internet?
The Internet is not a technology that Turkey was late to catch onto. We became familiar with web technologies at the same time as the world. The development of the infrastructure took place in parallel with this process. We started, for instance, to construct high speed broadband at the same time as South Korea, but they succeeded in bringing high speed Internet to households while we were not so successful. But as far as the perception, usage and benefiting from services is concerned, there is no problem.
As for the stages of development, the Internet became popular when newspapers dived into it in the mid-1990s. Providing news and content to Turks living abroad was helpful in terms of making the Internet more popular. Another key stage was when the university exam results were provided through the Internet. I remember the website of daily Milliyet, where I worked at the time, collapsing when we provided the results. Then social media came onto the agenda. I think a turning point came last summer during the Gezi Park protests. Even those who previously had nothing to do with the Internet started to use social media to get informed.
It seems that the more popular the Internet became, the more the state flexed its muscles to control it.
First of all, state institutions tried to establish their authority due to the very nature of the Internet. From the past, the state has always had a tendency to control, to monitor. But the Internet was a big exception because it is not something limited to the state’s geography or jurisdiction. A Turk living in Australia can do something toward Turks in Turkey. But whether this is binding for Turkey or for Australia isn’t clear. So it’s a complicated phenomenon for states to comprehend. That’s why the words used in rhetoric, which can make us shiver, have no relevance in real life.
He [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan] says, for instance, “We can close Facebook if necessary.” But then when we ask, “What are you closing down?” it has no correspondence in real life. This is typical burying the head in the sand. The state’s reflexes are still the reflexes of the pre-Internet period.
Another point I should underline is that for the first time the tools are in the hand of the people. The state cannot establish its power in this area and its agony stems from that. It is helpless.
So you are saying state answers a contemporary phenomenon with past methods?
There’s nothing it can do. This isn’t an area identified by international law. It’s a commercial service, not a public one. Some states, countries like Estonia, see access to the Internet as a constitutional right, as a public duty to the citizen. Unfortunately, we are not at that stage yet. But the state has no chance of getting ahead of the citizen in its ambition to control. We have seen this technically in the example of the previous YouTube ban.
A website that the state banned access to always remained one of the five most visited sites, according to official statistics. It is still like that and it will remain like that in the future. Let’s not forget that the Internet was invented to prevent the collapse of the United States in the event of a nuclear strike. It was invented so the U.S. could be run from Florida or Pennsylvania or elsewhere in the event of a Russian nuclear strike on the Pentagon. You can’t destroy it; it always has a back door, it has a B plan, a C plan. This is not a competition you can win.
So the state is engaging in a war it can’t win?
I can understand the state not willing to leave this space alone. This has logic, but the spokespersons of the government use such ambitious rhetoric and have such huge dreams that they can’t substantiate it. What’s more, their authority is subsequently going to be questioned. The state needs to develop a more rational rhetoric, proportionate to its capabilities. Instead of spending energy on how to block access to websites where audio recordings are posted, they should spend energy on how to avoid all the things that have been exposed through the audio recordings. They cannot clear consciences by trying to get rid of these platforms.
What is the profile of Internet usage in Turkey?
There are different speculations as to the number of Internet users, but roughly we can say that at least one person in each household has access to the Internet. Turkey has the world’s youngest Internet users: 50 percent of the total is in the 15–35 age group, and there is serious saturation in this group. But there is also a serious increase in the older generations, especially those above 55. There is serious ownership of mobile phones and tablets and there is a kind of explosion in mobile Internet usage.
The state therefore sees it as a dangerous domain.
But there is no state that has won this struggle. China has 40,000 civil servants for censorship and even they admit that they aren’t successful.
Even though the state can’t win this struggle, in the short term there is damage inflicted due to state’s efforts to control it and people take to the street to protest.
Yes, because the Internet is an ecosystem at the same time. It is an economy. What makes it so meaningful, fun, and worth fighting for is also the commercial aspect of it. Would social media become so popular had there not been Facebook, which is a huge economic platform? If you make life difficult for the Internet, the Internet economy won’t be able to flourish here. You have already made it difficult with high taxes, insufficient incentives, and continuously changing laws. On top of this, there is the censorship risk and the bringing of sanctions without even going to court. In this situation nothing flourishes and you scare away that whole ecosystem. I have friends who are relocating their Internet businesses abroad because their very existence is threatened.
The state does not spend a quarter of the effort it exerts to control the Internet on encouraging it.
Who is Serdar Kuzuloğlu ?
Serdar Kuzuloğlu started his journalism career in 1995 as part of the group that established the Posta newspaper. Until 1996 he was the editor of Posta’s science-technology pages.
In 1997 he took on the role of technology editor in the group that set up daily Radikal. He became responsible for a page that dealt solely with the Internet world. In 1998 this page became a supplement of the paper called “the virtual world.”
Kuzuloğlu currently continues to write his columns in daily Radical about technology. He also gives graduate studies classes at Istanbul’s Bilgi University on “Communication in social media/marketing” and “the new consumer and its changing behavior.”
He is also an advisor to several institutions and a frequent speaker at conferences, and is active in several digital projects as an investor and entrepreneur.