In a country marked by increasing authoritarianism, a strident crackdown on press and social media as well as numerous human rights violations, Turkish-British technologist Alp Toker brought together a small team to investigate internet restrictions. Using Raspberry Pi technology they built an open source tool able to reliably monitor and report both internet shut downs and power blackouts in real time. Using their tool, Turkey Blocks have since broken news of 14 mass-censorship incidents during several politically significant events in 2016. The tool has proved so successful that it has been implemented elsewhere globally.
Internet shutdowns – the wholesale censorship of millions of voices and silencing of entire populations – pose a grave threat to the media, democracy, most of all vulnerable communities and ordinary citizens. Since the invention of the world wide web we have come to rely on the internet for personal communication, news gathering, publishing and almost every aspect of our lives. That reliance has introduced a single point of failure which is now being exploited by authorities who seek to control narrative and restrict the flow of information on an unprecedented scale.
In 2015, I was in Ankara when so-called Islamic State launched a deadly terror attack, killing over a hundred people at a rally. In the hours that followed the authorities restricted access to social media and communication networks; victims were unable to contact their loved ones or reach out for help. Journalists were unable to contact eyewitnesses or ask critical questions so essential in a healthy democracy.
Our mission was born: Since then my organisation Turkey Blocks has developed new technology that can pinpoint and validate reports of shutdowns in real time. Through 2016 we uncovered evidence of over a dozen major blackouts during national emergencies, arrests of opposition party members and a devastating attempted military coup. We provided the data that enabled media, local press and international communities to report with confidence and push back to keep the internet on. We encouraged the government to become more transparent and limit use of their telecommunications kill-switch. Today our cause crosses political lines and resounds throughout Turkey’s polarised society.
Online censorship is increasingly used to mask more severe human rights violations – not just in Turkey, but from China, Vietnam, Pakistan, India, Kashmir, to Cameroon and Bahrain and all over the world. My team’s mission now extends beyond Turkey to cover several other countries as part of our NetBlocks observatory project. With new allies like Access Now and Index’s own Mapping Media Freedom project, standing alongside the global Open Source and open technology communities we send a unified message to those who seek to silence independent voices: as long as freedom of expression and digital rights are not safeguarded, our mission will continue and we will persist.