Current events in Turkey have raised a lot of questions – questions that strike at the very roots of government legitimacy. One of those questions is about how governments deal with the internet. Turkish PM Erdogan has ‘blasted’ twitter and social media for ‘spreading lies during weekend protests’ (see for example here).
It isn’t an uncommon response: when a government fears it’s losing control, it worries about the role played by social media in that loss of control. The extent to which Twitter and Facebook really contributed to the uprisings in the ‘Arab Spring’ is still a matter of debate – but the governments certainly thought they might, and sought to either suppress them or shut them down as part of their attempts to control the people. In the UK, in the aftermath of the rioting in London in 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron suggested:
“Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill. So we are working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.”
Even at the time, Cameron seemed unaware that he was suggesting exactly the same thing for the UK as he was deploring in places like Egypt and Libya – and even now, with suggestions that some within the government want to bring back the Snoopers’ Charter (see my blog posts here and here), and with regular calls to take control over various forms of ‘extreme speech’ – one man in the UK was arrested for a Facebook post of a burning poppy – it’s very clear that governments of many flavours consider the internet, and social media in particular, to be something to be feared.
And yet, when we watch what is happening in Turkey, many of us find ourselves naturally siding with those protesting. We need the right to protest – and the right to communicate, to organise, to assemble, to associate – and to do so with as much freedom as possible. That’s why those kinds of freedoms are built into most of the key human rights documents and declarations. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights and others have these as core values – and quite rightfully so.
When we see those rights restricted, controlled or threatened, we should know that this is wrong – and people in Turkey do. I was particularly struck by one tweet, by tweeter Faruk Ateş (@KuraFire):
“A government that fears the free communication among its citizens is a government you can no longer trust to govern you. #Turkey”
He’s right. When governments seek to control our communication – whether by shutting down social media, or by monitoring all our communications (as the Snoopers’ Charter proposes), ultimately that means that they are governments that you can no longer trust to govern you. The Turkish government is looking increasingly like that kind of government – and so would ours in the UK if we tried to do the same.
Of course there are good ‘excuses’ for doing so – fighting terrorism, avoiding ‘disorder’, stopping radicalisation and so forth – but we should be aware that by doing so we are risking sacrificing a huge amount of what makes us ‘civilised’ in any real sense. We should not allow ourselves to be distracted or persuaded that there’s something else going on – that, for example, the Snoopers’ Charter is only about monitoring the communications of the ‘bad guys’ and will only be used to deal with terrorism. As David Cameron demonstrated back in 2011, it’s very, very easy for a government to slip into thinking that powers are needed to keep ‘control’ when things get difficult. Powers to monitor all will ultimately be used to monitor all, and for whatever purpose the government and other authorities deem appropriate at the time. It is a slope that is very slippery indeed….
We should all be watching what happens in Turkey very carefully – for many reasons. How the Turkish government ultimately deals with the protest will be very important – primarily for the Turkish people, but in many ways for all of us. I, for one, am hoping that freedom wins out, and that suppression and oppression are not the main victors. The same is true for all countries. We need to find solutions to our problems that don’t require that kind of suppression and oppression – solutions that support our human rights – and our humanity.