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Protesters in Istanbul Rioted to Save Their Internet

Over the weekend, a new law was announced that would award the Turkish government tighter control over the internet, allowing it to block websites without seeking a court ruling first. Considering that the government already controls the country's...

by Deniz Agah
Feb 11 2014, 12:00pm

All photos by Charles Emir Richards

This year, Turkey's protesters have turned their attention from small, endangered urban parks to the slightly more on-trend issue of online freedom.

The reason is that a new law was announced over the weekend that would award the Turkish government tighter control over the internet, allowing it to block websites without seeking a court ruling first. Considering that the government already controls the country's mainstream media, it's no surprise that news of these restrictions on the country's primary source of objective information didn't go down very well.    

On Saturday, internet-freedom activists took their anger to Istanbul's Taksim Square, the epicenter of last year's Gezi Park demonstrations. Much like 2013's protests, Turkish state police were out in force, spraying crowds with water cannons, trying to demolish their barricades, and chasing protesters off down Istikal Avenue with paintball guns. Yet the crowds regrouped and began building up more barricades down alleys and sidestreets, before police attacked them again with water cannons and gas bombs. The clashes continued late into the night, with demonstrators chanting, "Hands off my internet!"

"If I don't stand here and protest, we will lose all our freedom," said Ceren, a 24-year-old college student. "With Turkish mainstream media under [government] control, we only have the internet. If we lose the internet, nobody in the world would even be hearing about this protest."

Police using paintball guns to chase off protesters

As well as giving the government the right to block any site they feel like, the new bill instructs each of the country's internet service providers to hold users' data for up to two years, which the authorities can then get a hold of—again without a court order. This could mean that Turkey's web could effectively become as inaccessible and detached from reality as the internet in countries like Saudi Arabia and North Korea, where authoritarian rule hugely limits freedom of expression.  

The primary reason for the new bill is government paranoia over the leaking of sensitive tapes online by a group called HARAMZADELER, in which officials talk and even joke about corruption. The recordings have already exposed a number of scandals within the Turkish parliament, prompting mass protests in December of last year and forcing nine MPs—including four cabinet ministers—to resign from the ruling Justice and Development Party.

The tapes have even featured Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and members of his family. In one, he is heard calling a major news channel and asking them to remove subtitles from video footage; in another, his daughter Sümeyye Erdoğan is heard booking a villa for the family. In other tapes, there is allegedly evidence of pro-government journalists manipulating political polls before they are broadcast on television.

The move appears to be a pretty transparent attempt by Erdoğan and his party to silence their critics and allow them to continue doing whatever they feel like without any repercussions from the public. But the good news for the people of Turkey is that the bill still awaits the approval of Turkish President Abdullah Gül, and opposition and international human rights groups have been urging him to veto the law. Let's just hope he listens.