Turkey is Suppressing a Disruptive Economy
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.
Even in light of Turkey’s history of censorship, Erdogan’s response to the latest protests was a worrying indication of his views on technology.
Like many mass-protest movements of the last half-decade, Turks have relied heavily on social media platforms — namely Twitter — to spread their message to the world and coordinate with one another. The Social Media and Political Participation Project, at New York University, has done amazing work monitoring the Twitter activity of the Turkish protesters. Unlike the protests in Tahrir square, where only 30% of the associated Twitter activity took place in Egypt, as Ross recently pointed out, 88% of the Tweets with relevant hashtags are in Turkish and 90% have been geolocated to Turkey. This indicates that protesters themselves are utilizing Twitter, rather than just foreign sympathizers. Along with Twitter, the protesters have made numerous gaming references in their graffiti and Facebook banter, underscoring the depth of their immersion in the digital ecosystem, despite Turkey’s restrictions.
Given the protesters’ reliance on social media, Erdogan’s first speech in light of the demonstrations was expected, but still ridiculous:
Now we have a menace that is called Twitter. The best example of lies can be found there. To me, social media is the worst menace to society.
Of course, the “menace to society,” the true cause of insurrection is Twitter, not the police brutality or increasingly autocratic social landscape. Still, Erdogan’s comments set a dangerous precedent. Rather than merely blaming common targets of autocratic regimes (marginalized members of society or an external enemy), the Turkish government’s new straw man is social media. Erdogan has started his crackdown accordingly: arresting dozens of people last week for “spreading untrue information” and “inciting the people to enmity and hate.” Their crime? Tweeting. These arrests are not only bizarre, but potential harbingers of economic stagnation.
The BCG report on the Internet and Turkey’s economy lists a number of recommendations for Turkey’s web sector. Among these are partnerships between the government and the people; building strong public sectors/private sector alliances; and amassing public support for business regulations. Banning YouTube and Google IP addresses is a slap in the face to investors looking for a public/private partnership, and rigorous censorship doesn’t usually arouse public support for tech regulations. Arresting protestors for tweeting and blaming protests on social media is a dangerous rejection of the Internet’s value, and the global consensus on Internet growth. The Turkish protest movement and Erdogan’s response serve as an important reminder: the Internet is an vital tool for social and economic organizing. Suppressing the web — one of history’s most powerful platforms for innovation — can lead to social instability, and tends to stifle economic growth. Embracing the web can lead to widespread economic prosperity, and is an essential component of modern, mature economies. Turkey would be wise to adapt accordingly.
Benjy Cannon is an intern at the Computer & Communications Industry Association. Follow @benjycannon