The ninth edition of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) began on Tuesday in İstanbul in Turkey, a country which has in the recent past banned Twitter and Facebook and which is currently trying more than two dozen Twitter users over anti-government tweets.
The IGF, established under a UN mandate in 2005, started on Sept. 2 and will continue until Sept. 5. It brings together individuals and groups representing governments, civil society groups and activists to speak about best practice on Internet regulation, security and human rights — all areas where Turkey has been criticized by both international and domestic bodies for the past few years under the increasingly authoritarian Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government.
Amnesty International (AI) on Tuesday referred to an ongoing trial in Turkey where 29 Twitter users in İzmir face up to three years in prison for tweeting critical remarks during the anti-government Gezi protests of last year. “It’s astounding to see Turkish authorities plough on with the prosecution of Twitter critics, even as they host a discussion on Internet governance where human rights are a key theme,” said Sherif Elsayed-Ali, deputy director of global issues at AI.
“Such double standards on freedom of expression online are a particularly bitter irony for the dozens of Turkish Twitter users facing trial for tweeting about last year’s protests,” Elsayed-Ali added.
The IGF in general has been criticized for placing too much focus on the opinions of some of the stakeholders instead of giving all stakeholders an equal say. Işık Barış Fidaner from the Internet rights group Alternatif Bilişim, which is holding an alternative Internet Ungovernance Forum on Sept. 4-5, told Today’s Zaman: “Our forum is not a counter activity; it is a complementary event. We believe that some issues — namely the state of affairs in Turkey, digital surveillance, free speech, commercial monopolization and censorship — aren’t given the focus they deserve in the IGF program.” He said that those who are the cause of problems associated with these issues — namely governments and Internet companies that have centralized commercial power — are given more space for expression, undermining the forum’s claim to give equal space to all stakeholders. Alternatif Bilişim is also an IGF participant.
Many Internet organizations attending the forum have been trying to emphasize local issues as well as other problems concerning government surveillance and censorship. Some organizations, including IGF-participants Association for Progressive Communications (APC) and the Humanist Institute for Cooperation with Developing Countries (Hivos), have been trying to ensure that rights violations on the Internet don’t go unaddressed. The two organizations will be launching a report titled Global Information Society Watch (GISWatch) on national and global mass surveillance on Sept. 4 at the IGF.
But even with attempts to address the general shortcomings the IGF is said to have, rights organizations such as the AI and Internet activists in Turkey say it is unacceptable for the forum to be held in a country like Turkey.
On Aug. 19, academics Kerem Altıparmak and Yaman Akdeniz, best known for filing an individual petition with the Constitutional Court in March of this year against the bans on YouTube and Twitter, released a joint statement announcing a boycott of the IGF this year. Both Akdeniz and Altıparmak will be speaking at Alternatif Bilişim’s “ungovernance” forum.
The statement noted that about 48,000 websites have been blocked under Turkey’s controversial Internet Law No. 5651 on the grounds that they might have content harmful for children. However, the law has been used to block websites meant for adults.
Changes made in February of this year to the same law have introduced provisions forcing Internet service providers (ISPs) to retain digital data for between one and two years. The law has also introduced provisions protecting personnel of the Telecommunications Directorate (TİB) against legal action over violations of rights and the law that they might commit in the course of their job. The statement said the academics would boycott the IGF for these reasons.
On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report about Internet freedoms in Turkey, which it says “has an abysmal record of protecting free expression online.”
“Turkey’s ruling party has responded to criticism of its policies by escalating Internet censorship and prosecuting social media users,” according to Cynthia Wong, senior Internet researcher at HRW. “Delegations at the Internet Government Forum shouldn’t turn a blind eye to the Turkish government’s increasingly regressive approach to rights online.”
Things are likely to get worse, the organization noted, recalling that now, the country’s spy agency has extensive powers of internet surveillance. “The right to privacy online and offline has also been under threat. In April, Turkey passed a new law that greatly expanded the surveillance powers of the National Intelligence Organization, known by its Turkish acronym MİT (Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı). The law gives the agency sweeping powers to amass private data, documents and personal information in all forms without a court order,” HRW said.
“The new law fundamentally undermines the right to privacy by permitting the agency unfettered access to personal data without judicial oversight or review,” HRW said. “Nor does it have any clear limits on the scope of data retention or government access to private data. The law also punishes journalists who might expose abuses by the agency and grants MİT personnel effective immunity from prosecution.
Turkey blocked Twitter in March, literally hours after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was prime minister at the time, called it “the worst menace to society.” The microblogging site remained blocked for two weeks, in spite of lower court orders to remove the ban. YouTube was also banned by the Turkish authorities in April 2014, following the leak of the recording of a security summit attended by the country’s top security officials. The site remained blocked for about two months.