An op-ed by Professors John Palfrey and Jonathan Zittrain: Choices for Turkey in the digital age

The following op-ed, Choices for Turkey in a digital age, written by Harvard Law School Clinical Professor John Palfrey ’01 and Visiting Professor Jonathan Zittrain ’95, was published in the Turkish Daily News on March 5, 2008.

Professor John Palfrey '01

Professor John Palfrey ’01

The core boon and bane of the combined Internet and personal computer is its “generativity.”

Generativity means the ability for people all over the world — people without particular credentials or wealth or connections — to use and then share the power of technology for a variety of ends. Many of these uses have been unanticipated or, if anticipated, would never have been thought to be valuable at first. When the Internet was first created, no one would have imagined that the world’s largest encyclopedia could be written entirely by amateurs, and yet we have Wikipedia.

No one contemplated a place on the Web where anyone could upload any video, any time, to share with anyone else in the world, and yet we have YouTube and DailyMotion and now Qik, where people can stream what they see live to the world by holding up their mobile phones. No one would have guessed that social relationships would be mapped and plied online, yet we have Facebook, Bebo, and studiVZ.

The Internet makes possible technological and business innovations that were unanticipated a few decades ago. Entire industries have been built on the combined platform of the Internet and personal computers. These industries have created millions of jobs in places like Silicon Valley and Boston and Austin in the United States. These industries have also created millions more jobs in places like Dublin, Ireland; Shanghai, China; and Bangalore, India.

The ability to build upon the open architecture of the Internet, and to develop programs that can run on the general purpose computer, has made innovation and job creation possible in cities that span the globe. Even those places without significant technology industries are benefiting from the productivity gains that these technologies make possible, through the use of cellular phones, email, and the Web.

Just as important, the Internet — especially in its current phase of development, called Web 2.0 for short — is making possible innovation and creativity in terms of content. Today, simple technology platforms like Web logs, social networks, and video-sharing sites are enabling individuals to have greater voice in their societies.

These technologies are also giving rise to the creation of new art forms, like the remix and the mash-up of code and content.  Many of those who are making use of this ability to create and share new digital works are young people — those born in a digital era, with access to high-speed networks and blessed with terrific computing skills, called “digital natives” — but many digital creators are grown-ups, even professionals.

The openness that catapults these systems and their evolving uses to prominence also makes them vulnerable. We face a crisis in computing and network security. The threat is not merely technical in nature. It does not have to do solely with whether a particular operating system, application, or router has been poorly programmed. It is grounded in something far more fundamental: the ability for members of the public to choose what code they run and what content they post online, which in turn determines what they can see, do, and contribute online.

The Internet is under threat, both because of the threat of bad code and the fear of the impact of too much of this user-generated content posted to the Internet. The digital environment is under threat in many parts of the world, including Turkey.

These two threats are different from one another, but each could have the effect of squelching innovation and creativity online.

The threat of bad code is giving rise to the possibility that technology companies, governments, and others may begin to shut down the generative powers of the personal computer by reducing the freedom to tinker with the code and the freedom to run any program one wants. A future with a locked-down personal computer would mean a future with far less of the innovation that has made the last few decades so extraordinary in the computing field.

The threat of “too much” free expression online is leading to more Internet censorship in more places around the world than ever before. When we started studying Internet censorship five years ago, along with our colleagues in the OpenNet Initiative (from the Universities of Toronto, Cambridge, and Oxford, as well as Harvard Law School), there were a few places — like China and Saudi Arabia — where the Internet was censored.

Since then, there’s been a sharp rise in online censorship, and its close cousin, surveillance. About three dozen countries in the world restrict access to Internet content in one way or another. Most famously, in China, the government runs the largest censorship regime in the world, blocking access to political, social, and cultural critique from its citizens. So do Iran, Uzbekistan, and others in their regions. The states that filter the Internet most extensively are primarily in East Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and Central Asia.

Turkey is among those places in the world that are facing a choice. Does one choose to embrace the innovation and creativity that the Internet brings with it, albeit along with some risk of people doing and saying harmful things? Or does one start down the road of banning entire zones of the Internet, whether online Web sites or new technologies like peer-to-peer services or live videoblogging?

We admit to a clear commitment: We think that a free and open Internet is, on balance, a very good thing for democratic societies.  We work closely in partnership with technology companies — like Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, Lenovo, and others — that are leading the digital revolution. It’s our view that these companies, and citizens around the world, have benefited from the lightly-regulated environment in which they have operated, for the betterment of global society.

In Turkey, the Internet has been largely free from government controls. Free expression and innovation have found homes online, in ways that benefit culture and the economy.

But there are signs that this freedom may be nearing its end, just as the benefits to be reaped are growing. When the state chooses to ban entire services for the many because of the acts of the few, the threat to innovation and creativity is high. Those states that have erected extensive censorship and surveillance regimes online have found them hard to implement with any degree of accuracy and fairness. And, more costly, the chilling effect on citizens who rely on the digital world for their livelihood and key aspects of their culture — in fact, the ability to remake their own cultural objects — is a high price to pay for control.

The impact of the choice Turkey makes today will be felt over decades and generations. Turkey’s choice also has international ramifications. If Turkey decides to clamp down on Internet activity, it will be lending aid to those who seek to see the Internet chopped into a series of local networks — the China Wide Web, the Iran Wide Web, and so forth — rather than continuing to build a truly World Wide Web. For Turkey, and for the global community, the Internet is worth saving.

Professor Jonathan Zittrain is the chair of Internet governance at the University of Oxford and co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School.  Professor John Palfrey is executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School.