Lessons from GISWatch 2014

Lessons from GISWatch 2014

The cover of GISWatch 2014 on state and corporate mass surveillance in communications. Photo taken from website of Hivos.

Living in a Middle Eastern dictatorship, one tends to think her government is keener on Internet surveillance, online spying, censorship and profiling than everybody else’s governments (except for the US government, maybe). This is actually a misguided view, but we tend to forget to look at or fail to see the general picture, distressed about how much our own lives have become fearful under totalitarian governments and the ever-growing terrorist threats in our region, and surprised that we still have it better than many others in this part of the world.

The Global Information Society Watch (GISWatch) 2014 report, introduced at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in İstanbul in early September, was prepared jointly by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) and the Humanist Institute for Cooperation with Developing Countries (Hivos). It has helped me put things in the online freedom area in perspective a little bit. I am not going to lie to you, I am one of the contributors of the report, but I am not writing about it for that reason! Because the book was launched in Turkey, I had a chance to see a printed sample before anybody else (except the printing house probably), and I have actually read most of it. GISWatch 2014 contains several thematic reports and 57 country-specific reports (including one on our little banana republic here, which doesn’t really have a significant banana production). It is an absolute must-read and most of its writers aren’t high-brow academics but fearful citizens like you and me (probably more fearful than you and me, as most of them are rights activists, which also makes them braver than us). This is by no means the gist of it, but it shows clearly that all governments everywhere do their best to track and retain user data — both for surveillance and censorship (which are essentially the same thing technically) — and will likely use it against you whenever they can. The reports also show clearly that city closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras (we call them “mobese” here, but unfortunately we don’t pronounce that word like obese with an “M”) don’t help you when you have been attacked, robbed or killed, but they will get you when you are in trouble (i.e., in trouble with the authorities). Another slightly relevant point I learned during the IGF and its alternative Internet Ungovernance Forum (IUF) is that Right to Information Acts never work anywhere, yet governments pass them.

GISWatch 2014 is also a good example of how growing networks of solidarity and collaboration between like-minded people and activists are producing solid results. It is hard to take on the big guys by yourself, but we can do it together, and we will be seeing a lot more cooperation among citizens of different countries. And we don’t really have to do any of this alone.

Yes, the challenges are the same and yes the Internet binds us all to a common fate (which increasingly appears to be a depressingly panoptical and Orwellian one), but there are also action steps and, in GISWatch 2014, the authors offer recommendations on how to deal with surveillance issues with regards to a specific country. They show us what our options are and that is a good place to start for all of us. Every citizen of the Internet should understand that we have options, and that it doesn’t have to be like this. GISWatch 2014 can be helpful in seeing our options and knowing who our friends are, which in turn will make the world in the age of digital surveillance a bit less scary and make us feel a bit less lonely.

This post was originally posted as TZ Blog Post at http://www.todayszaman.com/blog/e-baris-altintas/lessons-from-giswatch-2014_358835.html

Do we really need Twitter?

Do we really need Twitter?

(Illustration: Cem Kızıltuğ)

Last week I took a taxi, and when you take a taxi in İstanbul distances are greatly increased thanks to the magnifying effect of traffic jams and nightmarish gridlocks. This makes it inevitable that you will have a simple but lengthy exchange over how nice the weather is, an existential polemical discussion, a deep philosophical question or, most commonly, politics with the cabbie.

I really don’t want to be yet another blogger who ruminates on his or her conversations with taxi-drivers, but my cabbie, an avid Justice and Development Party (AK Party) supporter, really asked me a good question. He loved the government. He said he was simply in awe of all the bridges, buildings, roads and other forest-killing activities the government has carried out to share the lucre with its allies and reward its minions and sycophantic cronies. He also said he didn’t understand all the fuss about Internet censorship. Our nation, he said, used to be a great society until the founding of the republic in 1923, but then we started to degenerate as a result of Western influence. He said YouTube and Twitter have been particularly instrumental in this mission to degenerate our society. Please understand that I am not trying to infantilize the cabbie, nor am I trying to be sarcastic because I don’t agree with his politics. I am writing down the exact opinions he stated during our not-so-brief conversation. And I am no stranger to the mindset of the AK Party voter (although, yes, we parted ways long ago with its supporters; everyone in the country has deleted each other from their friend lists on Facebook based on the very simple divide of whether they support the AK Party or not), so the conversation didn’t really surprise me, although certainly I found the discourse annoying.

But I couldn’t help but jump from my seat when he turned to me (and yes he did, but I didn’t jump because he wasn’t looking at the road) and said, “Can’t you have the Internet without YouTube and Twitter? Who needs those?” I was more than shocked, although in retrospect I can see very well that this assertion is part of a very consistent and coherent argument, and I shouldn’t have been taken aback like that. I found myself, in a panicky way, explaining, “No, no you can’t have the Internet without YouTube or Twitter. That’s not the Internet. Without those, you won’t know what anybody is up to, and you will fall into mediocrity.”

I spoke of friends who relied on YouTube to play lullabies for their children, I spoke of people like me, who need YouTube to watch videos on how to chop onions (or tomatoes and other fundamentals of the alien planet of all things culinary), I spoke of people who need to watch stand-up bits or sketches on YouTube to cheer up and others. I was trying to explain to him that YouTube is now part of our daily lives, and it is a part of the Internet (at least for now) and you can’t have one without the other.

Speaker after speaker at the Internet Ungovernance Forum (IUF) held last week in İstanbul showed that neither Google, the owner of YouTube, nor Twitter — whose top leadership was more than happy to hop on the first plane to Turkey when the microblogging site was shut down under orders from our Supreme Leader and work with our government to make sure that it stays open — or Facebook or any other major social media platform we use daily really love us, or care about our privacy. But they are there, and we use them, and we know what’s up, but we are not going to stop using them overnight. (If we ever will.)

The cabbie said his daughter will have a baby in 20 days; his first grandchild. He will most likely use YouTube extensively to play songs for the baby. (Like, how can you raise a child without YouTube?)

Yaşar Adanalı, a speaker at last week’s IUF and an urban rights activist, who is also one of the great people behind the Networks of Dispossession, which uses interactive maps to show the connections between all the people (government, media, corporations, et al.) who are stealing our future by killing our forests and drying our waters, said the government is not against the Internet. It just wants a gentrified Internet. The cabbie I talked with thought banning YouTube and Twitter would be enough to gentrify the Internet, and he knew that our Supreme Leader hates those two platforms, that’s why he tried to argue that we don’t need them.

Internet activists at the IUF, at least in one panel, discussed how to bridge the communication gap between rights activists and the not-insignificant majority who believe that the activists are really terrorists or coup-plotters, as governments like ours often claim . This is the major problem of all activism, of course. “No no, we are really the good guys.” How can you explain? I don’t know.

My own individual effort with the cabbie didn’t work too well. I said without following what the world is up to on social media sites like Twitter or on YouTube, our country would fall behind, and I really was not trying to be political, I really think it is a valid argument. The cabbie? He wasn’t impressed.

This post originally appeared at TZ Blog Section http://www.todayszaman.com/blog/e-baris-altintas/do-we-really-need-twitter_357995.html