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Turkey: Time To Back Up Talk With Concrete Action For Online Human Rights

Web Foundation · August 29, 2014

Next week, Istanbul will welcome over 3000 delegates to the annual Internet Governance Forum – a UN-mandated international conference dedicated, in the words of its Chairperson, to “maintaining a free, open, interoperable, stable, secure and trustworthy Internet“ and “ensuring the Internet continues to evolve in the global public interest”.

This should be a proud moment for host country Turkey, which in 2012 was one of the backers of a UN resolution affirming that people must have the same rights online as offline. So why are leading Turkish internet activists and geeks boycotting the IGF – and why is the Web We Want campaign supporting the “Ungovernance Forum” that they are organising in protest?

In brief, it’s because Turkey’s commitments to digital rights in international forums are blatantly betrayed by its actions at home.

Between May 2007 and July 2014 Turkey blocked access to approximately 48,000 websites subject to its controversial Internet Law No 5651; similar moves have been instituted on YouTube; and the country has also developed an increasingly vigorous filtering platform.

But responsibility for the failure to protect Turks’ human rights online cannot be laid at the feet of the government alone.  Western companies that aggressively market surveillance technology – or the “Dictators’ Little Helpers” as some have called them – have faced inconvenient questions about their role in marketing increasingly advanced software and hardware to the Turkish state. And the jurisdictions in which these companies are based also face challenges on their failure to interrogate or regulate such exports. As the CAUSE campaign has noted, “lack of concerted and effective international trade regulation has fostered an environment in which commercial companies have enabled authoritarian regimes with pervasive surveillance capabilities.”

Research by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab found evidence that state agencies in Turkey are using Trojan Horse technology acquired from the Italian vendor Hacking Team and the British/German vendor FinFisher. This indicates that the Turkish government has successfully developed the capacity to hack into individual user devices and conduct targeted surveillance.

Indeed, reports have emerged that Turkish police “monitored or accessed the web and email traffic of everyone living in the Marmara region, including Istanbul” for a period of three months. Looking ahead, Hürriyet Daily News has reported that Turkey has a €40M deal with a Swedish company, NetClean, to fight against child sexual abuse cases. However, there are fears that this is just a pretext to intensify state pressure on Internet freedoms in Turkey: the last two restrictive Internet Laws passed in Turkey were created primarily in the name of protecting children.

Clearly, neither Turkey, nor the companies that sell it surveillance technology, nor the foreign governments that fail to regulate such technology are fulfilling their obligations to respect Turkish people’s rights to privacy, freedom of expression or freedom of association online.

When Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff opened the NETmundial summit in São Paulo this April, she used the opportunity to announce a progressive new law expanding and protecting Brazilians’ online rights. When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan takes the stage at the opening ceremony of the Istanbul IGF next Monday, he should, at a minimum, announce the repeal of Internet Law 5651 and a halt to the indiscriminate mass surveillance of his people. For their part, Western governments and companies should use the IGF to initiate serious discussions on an action plan to update export laws and international trade regulations, so that it becomes much harder to acquire surveillance technology to crush dissent and violate fundamental rights.

Next up, we’ll be taking a closer look at some of the other key countries participating in the IGF. Do their actions at home measure up to their rhetoric any better than Turkey’s? We’ll share our findings on Monday.

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