This column first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News
ISTANBUL, Turkey — Today’s column was supposed to be about alternatives to the broken user-name and password systems, but as I was doing my research, I hit upon an obstacle that required me to change topics.
I had planned to comment on a report about a security flaw in Samsung’s recently released Galaxy S5 phone that enabled hackers to bypass the phone’s fingerprint recognition system. According to several press reports, researchers at SR Labs had posted a video on YouTube showing how they were able to unlock the phone using a mold of a real fingerprint. But, when I clicked on a link to view the video I saw instead a message telling me that YouTube was being blocked based on “subparagraph 4 of article 8 of law number 5651.”
You see, I was working from a hotel room last week in Istanbul, where the Turkish government has blocked access to YouTube. The government had earlier blocked Twitter, but the ban was lifted by court order. A court also ordered that YouTube access be restored, but according to Reuters, the government has decided to defy that order.
Ironically, I’m in Istanbul to help organize some workshops for the United Nations’ Internet Governance Forum (IGF), which takes place here in September. The IGF is where delegates from governments, companies, nonprofit organizations and universities around the world discuss a variety of Internet policy issues, including freedom of expression. One of the workshops I’m organizing is about the tension between child protection and child rights, but given what’s happening here in Turkey and elsewhere around the world, I’m tempted to expand it from child rights to human rights.
One excuse officials here used to block Twitter and YouTube was that leaked content about possible Turkish military action against Syria was threatening national security. But people I’ve spoken with here in Istanbul tell me that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s problem with Twitter and YouTube has more to do with the sites being used to expose official corruption, including postings on YouTube of audio tracks from compromising phone conversations among officials.
I’m in no position to judge what is or isn’t true about the claims and counterclaims here in Turkey, but it’s hardly the first time we’ve heard a government official using national security as an excuse to interfere with civil liberties.
What happened in Turkey has not happened in the United States, nor is it likely to happen. If our government were concerned about the security implications of a particular piece of content, it would likely attempt to block that content rather than the entire site that is hosting it. But as Edward Snowden and others have amply demonstrated, there are actions our government does take in the name of national security — including storing metadata about phone records — that some argue could have a chilling impact on speech.
And before we get too self-righteous about what’s happening in Turkey, it’s also important to recall relatively recent free speech debates in the United States. In 1996, Congress passed the Communications Decency Act, which would have completely blocked online sites deemed “harmful to minors,” had the Supreme Court not overturned those provisions. The CDA was aimed at pornography, not political speech, but there were many who worried about the slippery slope of the government banning otherwise legal speech in the name of “child protection.”
Even the 2012 debate about the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act raised troubling censorship issues because, at one point, they contained a clause that would have allowed officials to effectively block access to entire sites accused of illegally distributing copyrighted material. I bring this up not to rekindle the debate about those bills, which were withdrawn as a result of an organized online protest movement, but as a reminder that we in the United States also need to look inward when criticizing the actions of other countries.
As I sit in my Istanbul hotel room unable to do my work because of a government blockage, I recall the last time I had to postpone a writing project because of a government. Last fall I was working on a booklet called “A Parents Guide to Cyberbullying” and needed access to bullying statistics from a research study conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But when I clicked on the link to the study, I got a message telling me that the CDC’s website was offline because of the government shutdown over Congress’ refusal to agree on a spending bill. It wasn’t censorship, but it was politically motivated and to a writer trying to access government funded research, it was very annoying.
For me, not being able to watch a YouTube video was only a minor inconvenience — I can revisit the subject of fingerprint recognition sometime later. But for the Turkish people, it’s infuriating when their government shuts down an entire social media platform just because some officials are unhappy with what some people have posted there. It’s also a reminder that civil liberties are precious and should never be taken for granted, even in the United States, where freedom of speech is enshrined in our Constitution.