National security vs online rights and freedoms in Turkey

National security vs online rights and freedoms in Turkey


As the recent Cambridge Analytica controversy has shown, digital surveillance is a growing concern. The question of how online surveillance should work in democratic societies is at the heart of the latest research paper from the Istanbul-based Center for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM). 

The answer to the question is very complex and public opinion is divided. On one side you have those who are in favor of more surveillance. Frightened by the terrorism threat, they say states should be able to do anything without oversight. On the other side you have pro–privacy groups. They include those who not only care about violation of privacy rights but are weary about state institutions’ potential misuse of their authority.

It is a huge challenge for democracies to find the right surveillance-privacy balance. How will society be sure that decision-makers will only use secrecy and surveillance to bolster national security rather than to cover up corruption, mismanagement and misjudgment?

This balance is actually determined by the political culture of various countries. As rightly stated by Akın Ünver, one of the authors of the EDAM research: “While in some democratic countries increased secrecy may be viewed as hiding corruption and mismanagement; others that are faced with direct security threats (cross–border or terrorist) may view this secrecy as necessary.”

This dichotomy becomes particularly interesting if one recalls turning points in the Turkish government’s approach to online surveillance.

“Over the years the Turkish authorities have accumulated significant legislative, judicial and technical capacity to block and monitor user activity online,” wrote Doruk Ergun, another author of the paper. “Although these initially stemmed from ‘safety’-related concerns, national security has come to play a major role following significant social, political and security related developments after 2013.”

2013 is the year when Turkey was shaken by the Gezi protests as well as the Dec. 17 and 25 corruption probes. The public learned about the corruption allegations from social media, which was also used by protesters to get organized. For some, the Gezi protests were an example of citizens’ right to demonstrate against the government; for others they were an illegitimate attempt to bring the government down. Similarly, for some the government’s attempts to block websites publishing the corruption allegations were part of a cover-up attempt; for the government it was about “preventing the spread of lies by a terrorist group.”

Many in Turkey are today convinced that those corruption allegations were made public by what is now referred to as the Fetullahist Terrorist Organization (FETÖ), whose members in state institutions ironically abused their unchecked powers for online surveillance against the government. So while the government’s move to block websites publishing the corruption allegations could be seen as a legitimate action against a terror organization, in the absence of a transparent and legal investigation of these allegations many see such blocking simply as am attempt to whitewash.

The fact is that Turkey started to experience an ever-tighter control of online activity in around 2013. This increased demand for tighter control no doubt also came as a result of “the exacerbation and persistence of terrorism and conflicts in Turkey and its neighborhood,” as pointed out by the study. But the paper also rightly states that “the increasingly ‘security–first’ outlook has not been balanced with due concern for rights and freedoms.”

By now, and especially since the coup attempt, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) should understand how the lack of oversight of online surveillance can be detrimental. But instead of learning from past lessons, it still maintains an Internet governance architecture that lacks adequate safeguards against deliberate or unintentional infringement of personal rights and freedoms.

That brings us to the point underlined by Ünver: Digital democracy can only expand up to the borders of physical democracy. A digital democracy requires, first and foremost, an offline democracy with well-functioning checks and balances.