Cold Turkey on Internet and Democracy

When parts of the Turkish military attempted a coup d’etat on president Erdogan last week, the president reacted by asking the people to take to the streets and “defend democracy”. He communicated this message via minarets of mosques across the country, but also via mass text messages through the mobile phone carrier Turkcell. President Erdogan was elected through democratic vote, but has been criticized of expanding the presidential power by attempting to change the constitution. His regime cracked down violently on the protests in Istanbul’s Gezi park in 2013 and he has restricted internet access in Turkey, including demanding social media services to censor content. Turkcell is not wholly-owned by the Turkish state, one of its overseas investors is Swedish-Finnish telecom incumbent Telia Sonera. When asked about the president-mandated text messages, Telia Sonera CEO Johan Dennelind said he had no influence over the operations of Turkcell, his company being only a minority stake-holder (in fairness, Dennelind has announced plans to sell Telia Sonera’s shares in Turkcell and a number of Central-Asian telecom operators).

Internet activists, telecom lobbyists and other digital naïvists love to talk about how the internet spreads democracy. When Western governments want intermediaries like telecoms to act against crime on their networks, the rebuttal is immediate: that would be like in China! Some even say “the internet is a human right”, whatever that means. With this in mind, how can we interpret the recent events in Turkey? Was the presidential text-message campaign a natural part of how the internet spreads democracy? Or was it an illegitimate power grab by a despot who has by far overstepped his democratic mandate? Is political mass communication like this compatible with the “mere conduit”-doctrine, where intermediaries are considered to be only infrastructure with no influence over content? What do you think, dear reader?

When some say things like “we can’t have rules on the internet, that would be like China/Belarus/North Korea/insert despotic regime of choice”, they conveniently forget that these authoritarian regimes censor the internet anyway. It’s not like the attempts by Western democracies to uphold rule of law and privacy through government institutions inspired the dictators, they would do it regardless (oftentimes with the help of Western technology companies). The difference is not that some countries regulate the internet and some not, the difference is that some respect fundamental rights and provide legal certainty and some don’t. That difference goes much deeper than digital communications. I love the internet, it makes it possible for me to post this blog so you can read it (and thanks for reading it, by the way!). But it’s not going to bring democracy on its own and it’s not some fragile thing that is automatically wrecked by rules.