Is Turkey's digital future compatible with the 2023 targets?

GÖKHAN YÜCEL
Published
Is Turkey's digital future compatible with the 2023 targets?

Turkey's digital conundrum can best be explained with privacy, security, and connectivity paradox. Both use, misuse and also abuse of social media are at stake.

Internet and social media are very clearly game-changers in many areas: They have revolutionized how people communicate, engage, talk, learn and connect by creating new virtual realities and networks.

They also provide us with new metric and semantic types of data to measure, assess and sometimes manipulate human behavior and emotions, market strategies, political mobilization, social events, education policies and even foreign policies.

To better understand this irreversible and unstoppable momentum, researchers have lately been focusing on multiple literacies and pedagogies of the 21st century involving dominant digital skills.

New jobs and skills are invented to fill the gap between physical and virtual worlds. For example, the U.S. State Department's 21st century statecraft and digital diplomacy "aim at complementing traditional foreign policy tools with newly innovated and adapted instruments of statecraft that fully leverage the networks, technologies, and demographics of our interconnected world."

Pew Research Center's Internet Project is a perfect example of such research agendas. Pew asked 2,558 world-renowned experts to make their own predictions about the state of digital life in the year 2025. They all predict that "the Internet will become 'like electricity' - less visible, yet more deeply embedded in people's lives for good and ill." Their conclusive 15 theses about the digital future suggest disruptive changes "towards ubiquitous connectivity that will further change how and where people associate, gather and share information, and consume media." Social media is not alone on this journey: "Augmented reality, mobile, wearable and embedded computing will be tied together in the Internet of things, allowing people and their surroundings to tap into artificial 'looking on the Internet' for something - we'll just be online, and just look."

These predictions go hand-in-hand with other efforts to define the nature of the new world. Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen's seminal work "The New Digital Age" echoes similar concerns and opportunities in reshaping the future of people, nations and business. They, too, stress a seemingly new set of dilemmas depending on the advance of connectivity, privacy and security. In their own words, "the ways that the physical and virtual world coexist, collide and complement each other will greatly affect how citizens and states behave in the coming decades."

Amid such discussions at the global scale, the shutdown of Twitter and Youtube in Turkey raised many questions about the country's willingness and readiness in this new digital-age world order. I call this the "New Internetional Order." Unlike the international order based on territorial sovereignty and nation-states, the "internetional" offers a complementary and peaceful co-existence between the physical and virtual worlds through alternative ways of engagement, travelling, communication, trade, diplomacy and education in a predominantly nonhierarchical, borderless and protocol-free media.

Apart from raison d'etat, each nation tends to have their citizen-centric raison d(igital)'etat to comply with the necessities of this still unpredictable digital future. Otherwise, as the gap widens between the physical and virtual worlds, especially in a reactionary way in favor of the physical deprecation of the virtual or cyber, societies and states are trapped in unprecedented paradoxes which make it more difficult to exercise the balance between privacy, security and freedoms.

Turkey's digital dilemmas between the physical and virtual worlds transpire in a highly political and ideological social media landscape. Political tensions are often tense and when polarization also dominates the cyberspace, these fruitless digital clashes leave no room for public discussion on policy issues such as education, youth, et cetera. Cyberspace is fed by the physical rivalry and vice versa. This goes on in a cyclic fashion.

However, Turkey is one of world's rising stars in this new internetional system. Finding a balance to overcome Turkey's digital dilemmas is an indispensable precondition of the 2023 targets required to become one of the top-10 most developed economies. "A great nation, a great power, objective 2023" was the slogan at the fourth congress of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party). Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been stressing on the way to Turkey's 100th anniversary in 2023.

The goal is that by 2023, the centenary of the Turkish Republic, annual exports will reach $500 billion and Turkey will become one of the world's top ten economies.

By 2023, though, the global economy will be byand- large shaped by digital services and products. Our chances of fulfilling the 2023 goals without building a digital culture and solid understanding of the new "internetional" system, especially incorporating Pew's 15 theses about the digital future, is nearly impossible. More importantly, Turkey has everything that a country might need in this race because half of Turkey's population is under the age of 30. To put it differently, almost half of the entire population is digitally native, born to speak the digital language of computers, video games, social media and the Internet. There are almost 34 million bandwidth subscribers, 33 million Facebook and 12 million Twitter users and 22 million video game players in the country. The digital advertisement market has risen to $1 billion. Turkey's worldleading Twitter reach is 31.1 percent above Japan, the United States, and the United Kingdom. Overall, 79 percent of Internet users have all access to social networks.

However, when the Telecommunications Authority of Turkey imposed a nationwide ban on Twitter and Youtube, citing a series of court decisions that resulted from individual complaints, both Turkey's physical and virtual reputation were heavily damaged.

In fact, none of the abovementioned figures regarding the country's high cyber, digital or social media performance acted as mitigating causes.

Although most people, including celebrities, politicians and President Abdullah Gül himself, discovered alternative DNS or VPN solutions to beat the closures, the total number of tweets dropped.

Naturally, Twitter became an anti-government playground.

Erdoğan explained his own political, moral and security rationale for taking these measures during his campaign on the eve of the local elections.

At that point, social media, particularly Twitter, had already become a digital battlefield harboring several conspiracies and scandals. The Youtube ban was imposed at a time when pro-Fethullah Gülen perpetrators began to leak secretly wiretapped or recorded conversations and videos, including a top security meeting between the foreign minister, head of intelligence, head of the second army and permanent undersecretary of Ministry of Foreign Affairs, about a potential military operation against Syria to defend Turkey's territorial integrity. As one might easily guess, it was the final straw.

Shortly after the block, global public opinion expressed concern. "The right to freedom of opinion and expression is a central pillar of modern democratic societies," the U.N. Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue said. "Blocking access to Twitter and YouTube is also a severe blow to the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, since social media is increasingly used by people to mobilize and organize peaceful protests, especially in the context of elections," said Maina Kiai, the special rapporteur the freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. U.S. Department of State called the Twitter ban a "21st century book burning."

Mashable published the Turkish prime minister's "Nine Craziest Quotes about Social Media." "We have received several credible reports and confirmed with our own research that Google's Domain Name System (DNS) service has been intercepted," Google said in a blog post. Twitter released a statement with reference to "the millions of people in Turkey who turn to Twitter to make their voices heard are being kept from doing just that." Even Alec Ross, technology guru and former advisor for innovation to the secretary at the U.S. Department of State, on BBC repeated his famous line in an accusing tone that the "21stcentury is a terrible time to be a control freak."

Yes but, is the existing debate explained only by freedom of expression versus authoritarianism, and if yes, to what extent? What about Turkey's cybersecurity concerns and national jurisdiction? Here, we all find ourselves surrounded by a naked paradox, once pointed out by Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, in a Huffington Post article entitled, "Social Media: Enemy of the State or Power to the People?"[iv] Unless these debates are supported by addressing the importance of innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystems and also Turkey's integration with such global circles in the context of the 2023 objectives, international commentators and experts will also contribute to the prejudicial ideological polarization inside Turkey. In spite of several systemic and structural issues in this country, every one of us knows very well that social media here is not under fire like in North Korea, China, Iran or Vietnam. A sporadic comparison is fine but a biased generalization that Turkey is as authoritarian as these countries is improper.

As much as we currently discuss the Twitter and YouTube closures and reasons behind them, we should be able to elaborate Turkey's performance in terms of global competitiveness, network readiness and innovation indicators. We should be able to use the ongoing closures as an opportunity to devote our energy for the progress of a digital culture dressed with increasing innovation and entrepreneurship awareness. It is perhaps this awareness which can elevate our perceptions and understanding as to why Twitter has so far not opened an office in Turkey. Twitter has 10 offices in the U.S. and 14 international offices in Amsterdam, Berlin, Dublin, London, Madrid, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Singapore, Sydney, Seoul, Tokyo, Toronto and Vancouver. They are not only places for administrative purposes. These cities are also the world's innovation centers.

I believe that Turkey's digital dilemma, turmoil or conundrum, whatever you call it, may find this framework of the four perspectives as a useful way of revisiting the past, present and future of Turkey's digital openness question. These include cybersecurity, privacy, politics and digital diplomacy.

Starting with politics, to what extent does internal politics have an impact on Turkey's digital future?

It is safe to say, a lot more than most would expect. Nearly 99% of the hitherto social media closures are due to internal politics as a result of a crystal clear effort to topple the incumbent government.

Cyberspace is used by the perpetrators of the coup attempt as a primary battlefield to execute an anti-government viral campaign also attacking the family members of cabinet ministers and Erdoğan himself. Given the AK Party won an eighth consecutive landslide electoral victory, followers will turn to the upcoming presidential election and the general elections in 2015. Recent developments show that privacy and cybersecurity will not cease to defeat digital connectivity and openness as long as the anti- government conspiracy endures.

Secondly, when anti-government conspiracy operations prevent international engagement as a policy option, digital diplomacy hit an all-time low level of reputation in the absence of access to key platforms such as Twitter and YouTube. It is also such a paradox that both Turkey's president and prime minister are followed by millions on social media platforms, making them digital diplomacy celebrities.
Yet, when local actors literally intend to spend no time to engage with the internetional audience, digital diplomacy can only work against Turkey's favor.

Thirdly, for many, Tayyip Erdoğan uses privacy arguments as an excuse to limit freedom of expression but some others argue that that the problem at hand has national security and cyber security dimensions. As a result of the anti-government conspiracy, Turkey's military operation options for Syria are now accessible by everyone on YouTube.

Is that really tolerable when assessed from any given government's official viewpoint? What would have the U.S. or U.K. do if faced with a similar situation?

Can one draw any parallels with Edward Snowden and the National Security Agency (NSA) and Julian Assange and Wikileaks? These timely questions may sound rhetorical but they need to be elaborated comparatively in order to see what lessons Turkey should draw.
Additionally, social media users in Turkey have been using VPN and DSN solutions due to Twitter/ YouTube closures. One should also take into consideration the national cybersecurity and financial security problems and loopholes VPN services create.

Online banking and shopping immediately warned their users not use mobile access to their services through non-verified VPN tools and software. Ending the Twitter and YouTube closures will also mean an end to VPN vulnerabilities that millions of users face right now.

To conclude, Turkey's digital conundrum can best be explained with privacy, security, and connectivity paradox. Both use, misuse and also abuse of social media are at stake. Misuse and abuse as well closures will not only circumvent Turkey's global reputation but also prevent from endless opportunities for realizing global connectedness via sharing information. Improving this equilibrium in favor of connectivity by also not jeopardizing security and privacy depends on Erdoğan's willingness to create a digital future for Turkey. It is a digital future which will pave the way for the 2023 targets. Turkey has to demonstrate more willingness to innovate in the public and private sectors. Turkey has an acceptably good cybersecurity strategy but security-first approaches are no longer sufficient. A digital diplomacy strategy for international engagement and innovation mindset for every single government office are also desperately needed. The government should also start thinking about every possible scenario and solution for achieving Turkey's 2023 objectives at a time when the Internet will become like electricity by the year 2025.


* An international digital diplomacy expert and president of yenidiplomasi.com

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