Turkey is a borderland between Europe and the Middle East. Once the center of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey’s government was converted to a dictatorship in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal, who was later given the title Ataturk (Father of the Turks). Since 1950 the country has bounced back and forth between a multi-party democratic government and military interventions. Turkey is 98 percent Sunni Muslim, so along with a struggle between western looking democracy and eastern looking one-party rule, Turkey also struggles with a modern western-looking identity while also retaining Islamic cultural values. Turkey has a unique set of cultural and economic forces shaping its digital development.
Recently politics and culture converged in a digital struggle for internet freedom. Turkey’s original law about internet access was passed in 2007, but in February, 2014 Turkey’s conservative government adopted a new law that tightens the state’s grip on internet content. The legislation sparked street protests and public campaigns against new online controls. According to Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Erdogan, “There is no censorship on the internet. Freedoms are not restricted. We are only taking precautions against blackmail and immorality.” The new laws allow Turkey’s telecommunications authority (TIB) to block websites without first obtaining a court order. A simple complaint for breach of an individual’s privacy is grounds for blocking a URL within four hours of the complaint.
There is a longer-term struggle going on between centralized government controls and entrepreneurial freedom to develop communications platforms. Originally, in the early 2000s, the Turkish internet was expanding from a central network that connected three major university cities. The government ran the network as an additional part of it’s telephone company and called the internet service TurNet. By 2006 the government network had further expanded to connect with nearly all Turkish universities and allowed about 50 Internet Service Providers, ISPs, to offer internet service to the public through the government’s TurNet monopoly. The lack of competition allowed the government to hold back growth of internet websites that it felt were unfavorable for an Islamic culture.
At that time 2006, there were four independent satellite technology companies trying to override the government’s monopoly. There were also fiber-optic cable companies attempting to expand the Turkish network, and although the laws allowed competition and the possibility of free market solutions, government regulations were used to suppress that growth. Basically Turkish Telecom didn’t let free enterprise explode internet growth in Turkey in order to keep control over what was offered online. But government control began to break down with the advent of widespread cell phone use.
The Turkish population is over 81 million people and there are over 70 million cell phones in Turkey. If you add the land-line phones, there is a telephone for every person in Turkey, but cell phones offer broadband internet access to about 32 percent of the population. There are independent companies offering these services, but they operate within a revenue sharing agreement with the government. That system of revenue sharing is also a means for the government to retain some control over the cell phone marketplace. After all, since the independents profits are tied to a specific revenue share there are no huge windfall profits to capitalize market expansion on a broad basis.
Technology and Youth
The population is young. Over 42 percent of the Turkish population is under 25 years of age and over 85 percent of the population is under 55 years of age. Youth are attracted to new technology and are willing to protest against the government’s strong handed tactics to control the internet. The other way Turkish youth have attached themselves to technology is in Silicon Valley where the Turkish American business community established TABC, The Turkish American Business Connection in the fall of 2004. The groups tagline is, “Connecting Silicon Valley and Turkey.” So even while there continue to be struggles over the adoption and use of technology in Turkey the global Turkish community is deeply involved with cutting-edge digital entrepreneurial activities. The membership of TABC includes people at the C and VP levels of Fortune 500 companies as well as investors, engineers and entrepreneurs.
Turkey added privatization of government held economic assets like power plants and transportation systems to their political agenda in the mid-1980s. Yet, the neo-liberal privatization experiment progressed slowly. Then, in 2001, Turkey suffered a severe economic crisis after years of foreign borrowing and insupportable government debt. As a result of this crisis the pace of privatization picked up and the political environment shifted towards an aggressive privatization program, which is reducing state involvement in basic industry. There is an emerging group of middle-class entrepreneurs who are restructuring the Turkish economy away from its traditional textile and clothing industries.
It’s against this background that Prime Minister Recep Erdogan followed through on his threat to shut down access to Twitter in Turkey. The ban held steady for six days before a Turkish court ordered the government to restore Twitter for public use. Twitter had been used to publicize documents and voice recordings that seemed to implicate Prime Minister Erdogan and others in corruption. The ban was opposed by the Turkish journalist’s union and the Bar Association. From Erdogan’s perspective the social media site was spreading unfounded slanderous rumors. For him the struggle was about culture not about the legal rights or technology platforms. Turkeys’ digital growth continues to be a struggle of culture, economics and technology, which continues to impede digital growth.