Passions have flared at an Internet Governance Forum being hosted in Istanbul. The country has long tried to silence the Web, which has left many participants wondering whether Turkey was the right choice.
With Turkey second only toChina
in the banning of websites, the choice of Istanbul for the United Nation's 9th annualInternet Government Forum
was always going to be controversial.
"The IGF should never have taken place here," Yaman Akdeniz, a leading Turkish cyber rights activist and professor of cyber law at Istanbul's Bilgi University, declared angrily.
"Turkey's approach to Internet policy, Internet governance is problematic, not just for its attempts to censor content. But for prosecuting people who were trying to express themselves online, and its attempts to build a surveillance infrastructure," says Akdeniz.
"Internet Ungovernance Forum"
Akdeniz says the latest figures suggest Turkish authorities have banned 48,000 websites. But the number could be far higher as authorities are reluctant to release up-to-date statistics, he says.
According to Amnesty International, 29 people in Turkey currently face three years in jail for posting critical tweets during last year's anti-government protests.
It is a concern that has led numerous activists and NGOs to boycott the four day meeting in Istanbul. It was intended to bring together activists, governments and businesses.
A parallel, protest gathering is being held for the last 2 days of the forum - under the banner "Internet Ungovernance Forum."
The EU is watching
EU commissioner for the Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes has joined the debate, addressing an Internet Freedom Meeting in Istanbul.
"A few months ago Turkey blocked access to Twitter and YouTube," said Kroes. "Shutting down an entire website, silencing millions of voices, that decision was disproportionate, it was illiberal and it was incompatible with human rights."
Kroes went on to pay tribute to Turkey's Constitutional Court for lifting the ban, but warned that Brussels remains acutely aware of the "worrying trend."
The storm over Istanbul then swept into the opening press conference of the Internet Governance Forum.
In reply to a question over the suitability of the city as host, government representative Tayfun Acarer dismissed the notion with a wave of his hand.
Thomas Gaas, assistant secretary general at the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, attempted to put a positive spin on things, saying censorship was an important topic that needed to be discussed.
"We are aware that regrettably Internet censorship is a practice in a number of countries in the world," says Gaas. "However, it's important to see that the rule of law is in terms of freedom of expression and access to information is respected."
Listening in, a European diplomat commented, "that's the way the UN is, the last IGF meeting was in Egypt."
In a postSnowden
world, concern over increasing national and international surveillance can be felt in many of the plenary and round table discussions at this year's IGF.
While UNESCO has proposed measures to protect journalists and bloggers from surveillance, the specter of an unregulated multi-billion dollar, privately-run surveillance software industry has been for some one of the most alarming concerns at the forum.
"It's sold all over the world, and regardless of the kind of regime it's extremely powerful software," warned Gregoire Pouget of Reporters Without Borders. "We journalists and bloggers and net citizens are all being spied on by surveillance technology."
Latin American countries make up some of the industry's biggest customers, says to Laura Tresca, a Brazilian representative for the anti-censorship group Article 19.
Ironically, Snowden has been living in exile in Russia, another country famed for its censorship of the Net
"Latin American states are purchasing technology for surveillance," says Tresca. "For example, Brazil. In the last four years nearly $200 million were spent on software and technology. The excuse was the World Cup, but we have evidence that this software was used to monitor activists to avoid protests."
Business vs. human rights
With European and US companies becoming leaders in the field, there is a growing awareness also among European institutions about the need for regulations, says Silvia Grundmann, who heads the Media Division at the Council of Europe.
But finding the balance betweenhuman rights, the Internet
and trade is notoriously time consuming.
"If you go into new regulation, new laws either on the domestic level and the international level, it takes a long time. And during this period of time, journalists get [spied on] and they might even lose their lives as a result. So time is a crucial factor, and my call is to use domestic laws," says Grundmann, "and use that to scrutinize any export of surveillance technology."
But with the commercial stakes so high, time maybe running out, says Gregoire Pouget of Reporters Without Borders.
"We have to try to regulate the export [of this software], because this is a really new market, worth around $5 billion. More and more companies will invest in this, and these technologies will become less expensive and more commonly used. So we need to regulate - otherwise every state, democracy or not, will use this technology."