Digital suppression is a tried and true political tactic of Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his “Justice and Development Party.” In that sense, it wasn’t surprising that Erdogan blamed Turkey’s latest rounds of protest on every embattled, authoritarian leaders’ favorite new culprit: social media (Ex: , , ).
The recent unrest in Turkey — suppressed anti-government protests now in their third week — began following a peaceful demonstration in Gezi Park. Activists were staging a sit-in; responding to plans to uproot a park and build replica, nineteenth century Ottoman barracks (which would house a shopping mall). Police dispersed protesters with tear gas and water cannons, which unleashed a wave of latent anger across the country, as thousands marched against Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule.
While in power, Erdogan has straddled a thin line between economic liberalization and religious conservatism. However, in his attempts to protect tradition and exert social control, Erdogan has repeatedly attacked and censored web-based platforms. Consequently, despite his purported steps towards reform and prosperity, Turkey’s Internet economy remains well short of its potential.
In 2005, Article 301 of the Turkish penal code took effect. Among other things, article 301 prohibits public denigration of “Turkishness” or the “Turkish government” and associated institutions. It’s worth noting that “insulting” speech was punishable even before the passage of Article 301. In fact, Erdogan himself, while mayor of Istanbul was arrested and jailed in 1997 for publically reading an “Islamic poem” — deemed incitement by the authorities.
The Internet has suffered from Erdogan’s social conservatism. In 2007, the Turkish parliament banned a series of websites, ostensibly “in an effort to curb child porn, prevent the dissemination of terrorist propaganda and stamp out illegal gambling.” Additionally, they blocked websites which allegedly disrespected Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, or demonized religious sensibilities. In 2008, responding to complaints that certain YouTube videos criticized Ataturk, Turkish authorities blocked access to the entire site. Apparently, since (a) restricting certain videos and (b) blocking YouTube were insufficient, in 2010, authorities banned sites which shared Google IP addresses, to prevent anyone from circumventing the ban. In other words, Turkey’s determination (and unfortunately, ability) to restrict access to “troublesome” sites is well documented.
Furthermore, restricting Internet access is the antithesis of economic modernization. Erdogan has repeatedly committed to liberalizing Turkey’s economy and bringing the country into the EU. While Turkey’s economic growth over the past decade is impressive, the Boston Consulting Group issued a study of Turkey’s web-sector in 2012, noting plenty of room for improvement. FreedomHouse awarded Turkey an Internet freedom score of 46/100 (0 being the least free). To put that in perspective, Tunisia and Jordan were the next freest on FreedomHouse’s list. The Brookings institute has pointed to a well-defined positive correlation between Internet freedom and digital innovation and prosperity. In 2012, Internet-related industries accounted for a whopping 24% of GDP growth in mature economies. Mckinsey compiled a survey of ecommerce in 13 countries, which collectively account for 70% of the global GDP; and Internet commerce accounted for 3.4% of these countries collective GDP. In Sweden and the United Kingdom, the Internet accounts for 6.3% and 5.4% of the GDP, respectively. While generally, the Turkish economy seems promising, it lags well behind its aspirational contemporaries in the crucial Internet sector, which, in 2011, accounted for just 1.7% of Turkey’s GDP. Erdogan must loosen his government’s hold on the web if he truly wants to deliver his economic promises.