October 02, 2012

Turkey vs. YouTube

So just now I was starting to wind down serious work for the day, when my "topic alarm" fired. I run a homemade filter on my email inbox that watches for a sudden influx of messages with "similar" subject lines. When a certain threshold is reached over a specified period of time, an alert goes out to various devices, warning me of this circumstance via an audio clip from one of my favorite old television series, which shall remain nameless here.

The topic that triggered this evening was from various people sending me references to a Reuters piece from earlier today, noting that Google had agreed to create an instance of YouTube under Turkey's ".com.tr" domain, and to redirect YouTube users coming from Turkish ip addresses to that "version" of YouTube.

Primarily, people are asking me if this represents a capitulation of Google to Turkey's continuing censorship demands.

To try answer that, let's look at this situation first from the standpoint of the Turkish government, then from the Google side, keeping in mind that of course I don't speak for Turkey or Google.

Looking at the Middle East, Turkey and Iran (both non-Arab countries) have the largest Muslim populations.

We hear a lot about Iran these days, but much less about Turkey.

Turkey has been relatively secularized for many years, but is dealing with a resurgence of fundamental Islam. This appears to have made them increasingly willing to push back against a wide swath of Internet materials that they view as potentially destabilizing from a religious or (intertwined) political standpoint. In fact, Turkey's escalating restrictions on the Net have been of increasing concern for quite some time. Back in 2008, Turkey blocked (or rather, tried to block) all access to YouTube for over two years.

Google abides by valid orders to block individual countries' access to materials, but Turkey apparently feels that the existing process up to now does not give the government sufficient direct say. By forcing Google to operate under a Turkish domain, they feel they will have more direct control. At least, that's their ostensible argument.

I say ostensible because statements by the Turkish government suggest that another motive is money. Turkish officials have been making expansive claims about the need for Internet companies to have in-country presences, and how this will force firms to pay a range of fees to the Turkish government.

The money aspect of the situation is perhaps given even more credence by the reality -- surely known to Turkish officials by now -- that vast numbers of Turks have long been using proxies to bypass the Internet restrictions imposed by the government. These proxies should continue to be just as effective for reaching the global YouTube site, despite the YouTube changes demanded by Turkey and now (we can be sure reluctantly) acceded to by Google.

The options on the Google side are not unfamiliar in this era of governments attempting ever more broadly to restrict their populations access to the Internet.

Google naturally also knows that Turks can still use proxies to access the conventional YouTube site, unrestricted by Turkish government edicts. Google also realizes that if the Turkish government imposes additional attempted total YouTube blackouts, this is at the very least a major hassle for a great many YouTube users in Turkey.

So given continuing Turkish government intransigence relating to the Net, Google's decision to agree to the government's demands in this case can certainly be viewed as entirely rational.

A broader question many people asked about in their emails this evening, was if this situation creates a slippery slope that could lead to many other countries making similar demands, and to what extent this differs from the situation in which Google found itself in China regarding government attempts there to micromanage Google's search results, leading to Google's exit from experimental cooperation with the Chinese government in that sphere.

The attendant risks do exist. But we must also come to terms with the sad fact that a varied and increasing number of governments around the world are trying to block (or considering trying to block) various aspects of the Internet right now, even right here in the U.S. As the old saying goes, that cow is already out of the barn.

Even more to the point, it's clear that attempting to judge these situations from a basis of moral absolutism are (as a purely practical matter at least) doomed to failure, given the political, legal, and other realities facing anyone, or any firm, offering services around the world.

So we're increasingly facing a depressing, but still very real, continuum of censorship issues. On one end, we might place countries with fairly narrow laws restricting particular imagery, such as French laws related to the Nazi era. At the other end, we might specify China, with a vastly broader and pervasive censorship regime. And of course, then there are nations that attempt to block the Internet pretty much entirely (except for the chosen few).

What we see is a mosaic of related complexities, of sharp edges that don't easily fit together, and that might cause considerable bleeding all around -- for both these firms and their users -- if not handled with the understanding that no "one size fits all" response to these concerns is practicable. And notably, this holds true even as we condemn government censorship itself in very strong terms.

So no easy answers, no magic wands -- only a tough slog as we work our way through what is sure to be an accelerating series of attempts by governments to remake the Internet in their own images, and efforts to muzzle many aspects of the Net that are among its most important and socially valuable attributes.

The fundamental technology involved pretty much assures that these attempts to shackle the Net will fall far short of their goals.

Still, the period we are entering will certainly be one of great challenges, and we will likely not be able achieve the sort of totality of global, open Internet speech that many of us would ideally prefer.

But to paraphrase a famous singing philosopher, even when we can't always get what we want, it is still worthwhile to try very hard to achieve what we need.

That effort alone will be keeping us very busy for quite some time indeed.


Posted by Lauren at October 2, 2012 11:49 PM | Permalink
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