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Turkey's dream of a national search engine

On the difference between rhetoric and practice with regard to Turkey’s national search engine project.

Turkey's communications minister Ahmet Arslan recently announced in an interview with a local TV station that Turkey was "building a domestic search engine and email service compatible with national culture and values”. But he did not expand on what "national culture and values” he actually meant. However, he did provide information on certain technicalities: He said that user data would have to be stored within Turkey's borders so that communications can be "fully analyzed.” He also explained that the new search engine would be "integrated with the world” but would use the Turkish alphabet – as if this was not already the case with Google.

It seems that these statements can be sourced back to a parliamentary question by a deputy from the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), back in 2014. According to Turkey's official AA news agency, the development minister of the time Cevdet Yılmaz responded by mentioning a project funded by the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK). The BİLGEM BTE Cloud Computing and Big Data Research Lab Project was launched in 2014 with funds amounting to 100 million liras (24,5 million Euro). It was set to end in 2016 and the idea was that TÜBİTAK would build "a national search engine” on the basis of the results of that project. Mr. Yılmaz also said that email software for public servants was not on the agenda. Although we are now in 2017 there has been no other public statement related to this research project.

Erkan Saka

Erkan Saka

Already in 2012 Turkish current prime minister and former communications minister, Binali Yildirim, also mentioned plans for a Turkish search engine, called E-Çelebi, citing national security as a reason for its necessity. Back then he said that it would be ready by 2023, a year that the ruling AKP party has always had ambitious plans for since it will mark 100 years of the Turkish republic. The search engine's name refers to the 17th-century Ottoman explorer Evliya Çelebi. But this project seems to have been forgotten.

It could be that this recent interest on the part of the authorities to build a national search engine is related to politicians' reliance cloud email services such as Gmail. More specifically, there might be a link to the leaked emails of Berat Albayrak, the current energy minister. Turkish leaders have a habit of voicing their fears that they might be exposed to surveillance by the US intelligence agencies and those of its allies and thus justifying their need for their own surveillance systems.

The pro-government columnist Mevlüt Tezel has also talked about the need for a national search engine. In a column entitled "There are some countries that did not give in to Google”, he pointed out that China, Russia, the Czech Republic and South Korea all had their own national search engines and that Iran had recently announced its own, Yooz. He argued that "we need to build our own national search engine urgently for our national security.”

In 2001, Turkey had had a privately-owned search engine called Netbul, but it is now defunct. At one point it was owned byCem Uzan who had to flee Turkey when his companies were seized by the government.

TÜBİTAK has also sponsored the development of an open source operating system called Pardus, which is promoted as a "national operating system” on its website. The first live CD version was released in 2005 and the OS is widely used by Turkish government agencies.

Despite the rhetoric about national values, the focus seems more to be on data retention and on easier surveillance of communications to prevent alleged cyber threats. Whether this can be met by a national search engine or not remains to be seen. In the meantime, there seems to be little concrete evidence that such a search engine is even in the making.

Erkan Saka is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Design and Management at Istanbul's Bilgi University. He teaches New Media Cultures and Cyber-Anthropology. He is a co-coordinator of a Citizen Journalism Training Program at Bilgi Eğitim and has been a political blogger since June 2004.

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