Don’t touch my Internet (unless you want a riot)


Police use a water cannon to try to disperse people protesting against newly proposed restrictions on the use of the Internet  during a protest in Istanbul Saturday. (Mete CarkciAFP/Getty Images)

Increasingly, it appears that Americans are taking the Internet for granted, and that’s a problem. It’s only January, and we’ve already had a federal appeals court strike down the FCC’s net neutrality rules and President Obama placed into the awkward position of having to explain the nation’s rampant NSA spying on both American citizens and overseas allies. Both of these are significant events that could impact the future of the Internet, but what has been the outcome so far?

Sure, there’s been a bit of moral outrage over allegations of NSA abuses, a few op-ed pieces, but mostly a lot of confusion about what things like net neutrality actually mean, and why we should even care. In fact, most Americans are probably resigned to even more NSA spying in the future, no matter what President Obama tells us. And when it comes to net neutrality, it’s not exactly an issue that will lead to riots in the streets.

Contrast what’s happening in America with the scene of hundreds of rioting protesters in Turkey, who are literally taking to the streets in Istanbul and Ankara to protest what they perceive as the government’s heavy-handed role in censoring the Internet. They are extremely agitated about the way the Turkish government is taking steps to push forward new legislation as a way to silence dissent and limit free speech. A new draft law in Turkey would give the government’s top telecom authority the right to block Web sites or remove Internet content without a court decision, as well as force Turkey’s ISPs to keep Internet user data for two years.

As the Turkish protesters see it, this new draft law on the Internet is just the latest step by the government to take away their full and transparent use of the Web. As a result, they are willing to take on rubber bullets and risk being tear-gassed, all while carrying around banners that read “Don’t Touch My Internet,” mostly because they understand the epic sweep of what the government is attempting to do. In short, they fear that Turkey could become another China, sealed off from Europe and the West.

So what’s the takeaway from the Turkish Internet riots?  Here’s the important point for Americans: rulings and laws about the Internet that appear quite innocent can actually have far-reaching implications in the wrong hands.

Consider the Turkish example. The way the Turkish government explains things, a casual observer might not even “get” what’s at stake. Government officials claim the new law is all about protecting the privacy of users and blocking annoying porn sites. But Turkey’s Internet users see it differently – they see it as a last-ditch effort by the Turkish government to keep photos and documents of a government corruption probe from leaking out over the Internet before elections in March. They fear that the ability for the government to remove content from the Web whenever they please would be used not to block stuff like porn, but rather, tweets or blog posts from anti-government Turkish voters. Ever since the Gezi Park protests, they see the Turkish government as engaged in a visible and important battle to silence detractors. 

So compare that to the current debate over net neutrality in the United States. Yes, it’s a fiendishly complex issue, but as the Post’s Hayley Tsukayama pointed out in an explainer video, the striking down of net neutrality could actually have some serious consequences for the way we consume content online. ISPs such as Verizon could use the ruling not just to charge users more money for Internet content like video, but they could also make it impossible for small, independent Internet companies to have their content seen if they don’t “pay to play.” One Post reader even likened it to a mafia shakedown scheme, in which content providers who don’t pay “protection money” don’t get their content reliably delivered to users.

Thus far, the Internet has been awfully good at collaborating behind efforts to stop Internet censorship. Look at what happened in 2012 with the highly visible debate over SOPA, when Wikipedia and other popular websites went dark and Internet users engaged in all kinds of “Stop SOPA” campaigns. But as Clay Shirky warned then, similar Internet censorship laws will keep coming. American Internet users should take a cue from Turkey and realize that the government sometimes passes laws about Internet freedom not always to protect your rights, but rather, to protect their rights. Changing the structure of the Internet also changes the types of arguments we can have and the types of content that we can create. And sometimes that’s worth fighting over.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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