Calls for Turkey to remove Internet restrictions

Calls for Turkey to remove Internet restrictions

Some 450 participants from around 90 countries have gathered in Stockholm to attend the third Stockholm Internet Forum (SIF), where freedom and openness on the Internet to promote human rights and development across the world was discussed. The SIF is considered to be a unique forum for discussion about the relationship between technological and social development, and this year’s theme was “integrity, transparency, surveillance and control.”

Half of the participants came from low- and middle-income countries, and many were from places where Internet freedom is restricted and efforts to promote it can even be dangerous. This was the very criteria that brought to me to Stockholm as an invited participant. As a matter of fact, unfortunately, almost all participants I met on the sidelines of the forum asked me and other Turkish participants about the Internet restrictions in Turkey, and on what grounds the government has banned Twitter and YouTube. The same feeling returned to me from the mid-1990s, when Turkey was named among countries with the worst human rights and democracy records in Europe.

The call for Turkey to broaden Internet freedom came at the very opening of the forum from Anna-Karin Hatt, the Swedish minister for information technology and energy. Recalling that the ninth Internet Governance Forum (IGF) would be held in Istanbul on Sept. 2-5, Hatt called on the Turkish government “to take the advantage of this forum to broaden its Internet regulations.”

 “Later this year, the results from the NETmundial will be taken up at the Internet Governance Forum in Istanbul, and I really do look forward to that. I do hope and believe that the Turkish government will take the Internet Governance Forum as an opportunity to develop their own policies on Internet use in a direction where communication and social media is embraced,” she said.

“The NETmundial, IGF and ICANN meetings - these are how we can reach a common understanding on the issues of global Internet governance, by all of us meeting, learning, giving and listening. As in all mutually beneficiary co-operations, no-one can expect to get all of what we want, but it will for sure be much easier for us to agree if we limit the number of issues that we put on the table, and if we come to the table with a true will of reaching a common understanding,” she added.

Istanbul to host Internet governance forum

The entire world, especially developed countries and those who are considered to be developing countries, are trying to find the best ways to realize global Internet governance, especially to address the growing question on privacy rights and surveillance on the Internet. It’s good that Turkey will host one of the most important venues to this end, as it shows its willingness to take part in this global initiative, but at the same time it is bizarre that Turkey is listed among the countries restricting the use of the Internet and the freedom of expression of its citizens.

It’s no surprise that such a forum is being held in Sweden, a pioneer country in promoting human rights, democracy and freedom of expression in the world. Promoting democracy has long been one of the pillars of the Swedish Foreign Ministry, especially under Carl Bildt’s capacity as foreign minister.
With companies like Bambuser and Netnod, and with state offices like the Swedish Agency for International Development (SIDA), Sweden has long been contributing to global democratic and economic development.

Olof Ehrenkrona, an adviser to Carl Bildt, explains that Sweden’s main message to countries with less freedom of expression and restricted use of Internet is proving to them the link between development and an open society. “If you have freedom of expression, if you feel secure when you communicate, then you have the basis to have an economically, socially developed society,” he underlined.

The question of Turkey

On the Turkish case and discussions floating around some EU countries about whether Turkey’s EU accession talks should be suspended, especially in light of last weekend’s European Parliament elections, Ehkrenkrona was very sharp: “Talking about suspending accession talks with Turkey is very stupid. The Copenhagen criteria are there to promote human rights; we should work for the implementation of them and not suspend talks.”

Underlining that there were less Turkish journalists behind bars compared to last year, as well as the fact that the Constitutional Court’s decision to lift the ban on Twitter proved that the system of check and balances was working, Ehrenkrona still recalled that the recently-approved Internet Law was causing question marks. “Despite all of these developments, we believe that the best way to support human rights and democracy in Turkey is to continue accession talks and to keep dialogue channels open with Turkey,” he added. 

In fact, this approach has been long endorsed by a number of EU countries known as friends of Turkey.

“What we tell our Turkish friends is this: Help us to help you,” an EU diplomat recently told me. The best way to help ourselves is to lift all sorts of restrictions on freedom of expression and thought, while allowing the use of Internet in the freest way so that we turn into an open society. Anything contrary to that will unfortunately push Turkey further down to a lower league of countries associated with authoritarian regimes.