On the morning of March 21, 2014, Turkish Twitter users woke up to the sounds of phones buzzing and computers pinging as over 40,000 people logged on and tweeted from the microblogging site. That Friday morning saw the number of tweets sent from devices inside Turkey increase by 138 percent, growth that would continue in the following days to a rate of 17,000 tweets per minute. Odd, considering that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had banned Twitter the night before.
Erdoğan’s ban prevented any individual using a mobile or computer device within Turkey’s borders from accessing and using Twitter. The ban came in response to government protestors who used the site to spread wiretapped recordings and documents implicating the Erdoğan government in corruption allegations during the weeks leading to Turkey’s spring elections.
And yet after Erdoğan’s ban went into effect, the number of tweets coming out of Turkey doubled and the hashtags “Twitter is Blocked in Turkey” and “Dictator Erdoğan” surged in the global trending topics. This piece will explore the ways in which the US government and American technology companies have contributed to the use of technology in emerging popular uprisings.
American technology companies, functioning for-profit and in alignment with the US State Department’s diplomatic goals for Internet freedom, aided Turkish Twitter users in foiling Erdoğan’s censorship. We have entered a new age of twenty-first century statecraft, in which tech companies have come to command tremendous power over an online network of international users.
In the hours following the ban, Twitter, headquartered almost 10,000 miles away from Istanbul in San Francisco, posted on its website a message instructing Turkish users on how to send tweets through text messaging services. HootSuite, another American company headquartered in San Francisco, also announced that Turkish users could bypass the ban by using its third-party application. A host of other American technology companies offered avenues to circumvent the ban, but it was the lesser-known company called AnchorFree that fully rendered Erdoğan’s ability to govern Turkey’s Internet users obsolete.
Reporters Without Borders, a nonprofit organization that monitors global press freedoms, ranks Turkey 154 out of 179 countries. By comparison, Finland is ranked first for press freedoms and the United States is ranked at 32, with North Korea and Eritrea finishing the list at 178 and 179, respectively. Despite its attempts to reduce government interference with how its citizens use the Internet in a bid to appeal to the European Union for membership, Turkey has been continually cited since 2010 by free speech advocates like the OpenNet Initiative and Freedom House for blocking access to 30,000 controversial websites and punishing Internet users for online comments.
All of Turkey’s Internet traffic is handled by Turk Telekom, a formerly state-owned Turkish telecommunications company that, despite privatizing in 2005, has used its centralized control of Turkey’s Internet access to facilitate regulation of online content and shutdowns at the behest of the Turkish government. A law enacted on February 5, 2014 by the Erdoğan government gave the Turkish telecommunications authority, the arm of government that works directly with Turk Telekom, the power to block any website within 24 hours without first seeking a court ruling and requiring Internet providers to store all user data for up two years and to make it immediately available to authorities upon request. Along with Twitter, Turkey also targeted YouTube in its March ban, which, as of April 2014, continues to be blocked. Erdoğan has also threatened to block Facebook access, calling for a complete “eradication of social media” in an April campaign speech.
Not surprisingly, Erdoğan’s actions and statements have been met with condemnation from the international community. Although never speaking directly with the Turkish government about the ban, the United States State Department equated it to “twenty-first century book burning” and urged its ally not to fear the freeflow of ideas the Internet allows. In a similar vein, the European Union called the ban “gravely concerning.”
The US State Department, which unilaterally condemns breaches of free speech around the world, did not, and could not, do anything to expressly prevent or end Turkey’s ban. But it did not have to.
In an interview with The New York Times from 2010, Ross credits Clinton for ushering in a new age of American digital diplomacy: “She’s the godmother of twenty-first century statecraft.” In this age, American diplomatic agendas, like supporting democratization around the globe, are not only furthered by traditional State Department methods, but also through the work of private American technology companies whose interests lie in the availability of an open and global Internet. As Ross explains to the Times, “A lot of the twenty-first century dynamics are less about, ‘Do you comport politically along traditional liberal-conservative ideological lines?’” He continues, “Today it is—at least in the spaces we engage in—‘Is it open or is it closed?’”
Before Alec Ross joined the State Department, the position of senior advisor for innovation to the secretary of state did not exist. Ross describes the State Department to The New York Times as “white guys with white shirts and red ties talking to other white guys with white shirts and red ties, with flats in the background, determining the relationships.” As the Times reported in his interview, Ross played an instrumental role in connecting then-Secretary of State Clinton to major figures in the American technology industry like Eric Schmidt, the chief executive of Google, and Jack Dorsey, co-founder and chairman of Twitter.
After hiring Ross, Secretary Clinton delivered her now-famous speech on Internet freedom at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. In her speech Clinton asserted that the United States considered the freedom to connect online an important aspect of both human rights and foreign policy agendas. Clinton explained the freedom to connect as “the idea that governments should not prevent people from connecting to the Internet, to websites, or to each other. The freedom to connect is like the freedom of assembly in cyber space. It allows individuals to get online, come together, and hopefully cooperate in the name of progress.”
Though she was speaking four years before the events in Turkey, Clinton nonetheless offered a stern condemnation to governments seeking to censor the Internet. “Some countries have erected electronic barriers that prevent their people from accessing portions of the world’s networks. They have expunged words, names, and phrases from search engine results. They have violated the privacy of citizens who engage in non-violent political speech,” she said. “These actions contravene the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which tells us that all people have the right ‘to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.’”
Clinton outlined in her speech her intention for the State Department to work in tandem with the technology sector to further the freedom to connect. “Today I am announcing that over the next year, we will work with partners in industry, academia, and non-governmental organizations to establish a standing effort that will harness the power of connection technologies and apply them to our diplomatic goals.”
The most important aspect of Clinton’s 2010 speech is that she acknowledged an alignment of interests between the State Department and technology companies. Speaking in regard to a 2010 incident in which Google ceased operations in China in response to requests from the Chinese government to access email accounts of targeted dissidents, Clinton said, “Increasingly, U.S. companies are making the issue of information freedom a greater consideration in their business decisions. I hope that their competitors and foreign governments will pay close attention to this trend.”
That the corporate interests of American technology companies have come to align with the United States’ policies on human rights and foreign relations is hardly a surprise. What Clinton calls “the freedom to connect” furthers the bottom line of companies like Google and Twitter, whose revenues are made through paying consumers or advertisers, and thus depend on maximizing the number of users in a given regional market. The Turkish government, for example, estimates that Twitter makes $35 million a year in ad revenue from its 12 million Turkish users. Twitter has not confirmed or denied this figure.
Despite their profit-driven interests, companies like Twitter play a pivotal role in furthering the State Department’s goal of promoting “the freedom to connect” around the world. Ross explained this role in a 2012 article for CNN, written shortly after the Arab Spring. Ross used the Arab Spring to draw three conclusions about the impact connective technologies made by American companies have had in advancing the United States’ pro-democracy agendas abroad.
Ross first notes that connective technologies further social and political movements at a pace never before seen in recent history because of their ability to remove the need for real-time information and action when mobilizing. He writes, “Movements that would have once taken years to develop and relied on strong ties between people well-known to each other can now be built in days or weeks, leveraging the relatively open platforms that social media provide.”
Second, Ross asserts that because connective technologies change the way people receive and send information, it is easier for individual citizens to share their ideas with a global audience. Ross cites this as one of the reasons the Arab Spring was able to gain traction on an international level. “Activists in the Tunisian Diaspora curated and distributed this content, leading to its pick-up by pan-Arab satellite television networks including Al Jazeera. This allowed students with a few dozen friends and followers on social media to become eyewitness sources for satellite TV networks that broadcast their stories to hundreds of millions of viewers. The Tunisian government of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was unable to contain this flow of media information.”
This leads Ross to his third and most important conclusion that “new information networks have disrupted leadership structures.” Ross writes, “More than anything else, we can draw the early conclusion that connection technologies redistribute power from hierarchies to citizens and networks of citizens. These technologies are changing the entire political ecosystem. They are changing the nature of who is participating, who has power and how that power is exercised.”
By looking at the events in Turkey, it becomes evident that Ross was correct in saying that in this newly emerging ecosystem, those groups who have both power and the ability to exercise it have changed tremendously in the age of digital diplomacy.
President Erdoğan was unable to exert political power over dissidents when he attempted to ban Twitter in Turkey. While the legal infrastructure existed to enact such a ban, there was virtually no operational power infrastructure to enforce the ban. Erdoğan can exercise power over his citizens within Turkey’s borders, but he cannot exert the same power over his citizens on the Internet. The Internet exists beyond Turkey’s borders and, by extension, beyond Erdoğan’s realm of power.
This was made possible, in large part, by a very particular kind of American connection technology: the virtual private network, or VPN. In the simplest terms, VPN software allows online users connected to the Internet, a public network, to hide their identities and location when online. If a Turkish Internet user uses a VPN, his computer will not show that he is in Turkey. A popular VPN software manufacturer is an American company headquartered in California, called AnchorFree. AnchorFree’s software, called Hotspot Shield VPN, was the most popular method used by Turkish citizens to bypass Erdoğan’s ban on Twitter. According to statistics provided by AnchorFree, in the twelve hours following Erdoğan’s ban, downloads of Hotspot Shield VPN, which is free for smartphone devices, increased from 10,000 to 270,000 in Turkey. It has since been downloaded 800,000 times in Turkey alone.
Software like Hotspot Shield VPN basically allows users to operate on the Internet without geographic detection, creating an online environment unbounded by national borders. Internet users in France become indistinguishable from Internet users in the United States or Turkey, making it impossible for countries to regulate online activity within their borders. Users can easily bypass the Internet regulations and censors put in place by their governments—in the online world, borders inside which leaders have traditionally governed cease to exist.
AnchorFree serves as an example of an American company that has disrupted power balances in foreign countries, not acting on behalf of the State Department but still working towards the same goals.
“AnchorFree is a mission-driven company, with a mission to provide secure access to the world’s information for every person on the planet,” David Gorodyansky, AnchorFree’s founder, told TechCrunch in March.
Despite Gorodyansky’s role as a CEO, he, and others like him, are being hailed as startup activists. “My advice is for startup activists to confer with officials in government not necessarily for approval,” Ross told TechCrunch in the same March article, “but for situational awareness that can help inform their strategies.”
The future of digital diplomacy is currently trending towards joint cooperation between companies like AnchorFree and the State Department. “I think that startups can perform functions once reserved to government, but they are well served to be as educated as possible before they wade into foreign affairs,” Ross said.
In 2012, Alec Ross left his position at the State Department to work in the private sector. He now sits on the board of advisors for AnchorFree.
Yet, many remain wary of cooperation between for-profit technology companies and the State Department. Enrique Piracés, vice president for human rights of Benetech, a nonprofit technology company, tells TechCrunch, “Their [AnchorFree’s] solution seems to be convenient and cost-effective, and some of their features are very clever, but unless there is access to the source code it is hard to think of it as a secure or trustworthy solution.” The work of Piracés and Benetech serves to illustrate the inherent conflict that arises between governments and for-profit organizations. Companies like AnchorFree are just as likely to act against the State Department’s goals and interests as they are to act in tandem, should it prove to be an economically profitable action.
On March 26, 2014, a court in Turkey temporarily suspended Erdoğan’s ban on Twitter, stating that the ban violated Turkey’s constitutional commitment to free speech. Regardless, Erdoğan has continued his crusade against Twitter and other American technology companies like Facebook and YouTube. “I don’t understand how people of good sense could defend his Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. There are all kinds of lies there,” Erdoğan reportedly said at an election rally, according to the BBC.
The suspension of Erdoğan’s Twitter ban is largely a symbolic move as it could never be effectively enforced. That American companies were able to completely render ineffectual a foreign nation’s laws has important consequences for the future of American diplomacy. “Twenty-first century statecraft,” as used by Clinton and Ross, will rely on the cooperation of American technology companies, which will yield increasing power and influence over a global network of Internet users. This reliance works, for now, as long as figures like Ross continue to move through the revolving door between government and the private technology sector. But most importantly, this reliance will only work to promote a sustainable form of diplomacy if corporate interests can continue to align with the diplomatic agenda of the State Department.