ANKARA, TURKEY - The site selected for the United Nations forum on developing Internet policy is generating a great deal of controversy, with critics taking aim at the irony of Turkey's poor record regarding social media, Web sites and press freedom.
Over the past year alone, Turkey has shut down Twitter, blocked YouTube, and jailed journalists and bloggers. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan even called Twitter a “menace to society.”
A number of non-governmental organizations and activists are boycotting the four-day event this week over Turkey's Internet freedom record, according to Yaman Akdeniz, an Internet activist and professor of cyber law at Istanbul’s Bilgi University.
"The situation in Turkey has moved from bad to worse. When you have such a problematic approach to Internet governance, then that should not be the host for such a major annual event," said Akdeniz.
The forum is an annual global gathering that aims to bring together governments, activists and business to discuss how to regulate and encourage use of the Web.
Organizations and activists are accusing the forum of caving in to Turkish government demands to remove a number of controversial topics from the session, a charge denied both by Ankara and the organizers.
Observers say Turkey has a very poor record of protecting free expression online, with tens of thousands of websites being blocked under legislation passed in 2007. Internet controls were further tightened in February this year.
The world spotlight was cast on Turkey when social media sites You Tube and Twitter were banned earlier this year by authorities, who claimed they were being used to spread accusations of high-level government graft. The bans were subsequently overturned by the country’s constitutional court.
EU Commissioner for Digital Affairs Neelie Kroes, speaking Tuesday in Istanbul, said the 28-nation grouping remains concerned.
"It's part of a troubling trend for free speech and free media in Turkey that is a trend, and concern that many in the international community have been highlighting for some time," said Kroes.
Ankara’s bid to join the EU has been stalled, in part due to growing concerns over human rights and, in particular, freedom of expression. Observers say concerns have grown since last year’s crackdown on anti-government protests.
The U.N. insists the choice of Turkey was normal, as it has rotated between all member nations. Assistant Secretary-General Thomas Gaas defended the Istanbul venue at Tuesday’s press conference.
"The United Nations works to promote an in-depth discussion of an open, free Internet and we believe this discussion has to take place; it is good that this discussion is taking place here," said Gaas.
Freedom of speech
So far, Ankara has refused to comment on the controversy. Most plenary sessions organized by Turkish authorities are focusing on the protection of the family. The Turkish government argues its controversial Internet legislation is intended only to protect children.
But Emma Sinclair Webb, senior researcher for Turkey for New York based Human Rights Watch, said forum organizers should not turn a blind eye to the Turkish government’s increasingly stringent approach to freedom of speech online.
"The striking irony of Turkey hosting the Internet Governance Forum is that Turkey’s own record on Internet freedom is abysmal. From our point of view, holding the governance forum gives us good opportunity to throw the international spotlight on Turkey’s appalling Internet freedom record," said Webb.
With opponents of the forum planning a series of events in its last two days, some say Ankara's hopes that the controversy will dissipate and the country would be able to raise its international profile as a fast developing country seem set to be dashed.