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Turkey's telecom past, digital future answers a key UBB question

While away in Istanbul, Turkey in July, I stumbled upon developments in the telecom, media and Internet industries that may be of interest to readers here.

Apparently, while I was away, the vice-chair of the CRTC, Tom Pentefountas, wondered aloud at the UBB hearings that he did not grasp how Internet concentration is a threat to freedom of expression and democracy. Hopefully what follows will help him to connect the dots.

As my wife Kristina and I walked the streets of Istanbul, we discovered the offices of Turk Telekom on a site that dates back to the submarine cable and telegraph building boom of the late 1860s. I write about some of this history with Robert Pike in our book, Communication and Empire.

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New communication technologies were adopted reasonably quickly by the Ottoman Empire because they were seen as useful tools of economic development and integration into the world economy. They were also tools of integration for an empire still striving to consolidate its control over a vast territory that stretched from Cairo in the south, Baghdad in the east and the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the west.

The British and French built the first telegraph lines in Turkey during the Crimean War (1854-56), but by 1857 the Central Telegraph Administration had been created and was busy building a national network, "from Constantinople to the head of the Persian Gulf."

The regime eventually struck a deal with what became the British-based Eastern Telegraph Company, which was the world's largest submarine telegraph company with lines that ran through the Mediterranean and onto India by 1865, and to China, Japan and Australia by the mid-1870s.

Altogether, telegraphs were the tool of overlapping empires and of massive capital accumulation and cultural exchange. "The founding of private newspapers also occurred simultaneously with the extreme speed of telegraph lines," as the historian of the Arabic world Juan Cole states. "New politics and political journalism grew together" throughout the Ottoman Empire.

The old 1890s telegraph and telephone building in Istanbul now advertises 100 megabits-per-second broadband Internet services, much faster than what most people in Canada get. I was keen beyond belief to go inside. The chance of an impromptu guided tour were slim, but amazingly a couple of minutes later and we were in.

Inside, we saw rows-on-rows of racks filled with equipment from Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson and Huawei, the Chinese upstart shaking the comfortable oligopoly that ruled the trade in telecoms equipment for much of the 20th century. Some old Nortel digital switching equipment from the 1980s and 1990s still sits in the racks whirling away, but its days are numbered.

The bulk of the multi-story building now lies dark and neglected because digitization has shrunk the space needed to house telecoms gear to a fraction of what was once required. The promise of 100 Mbps high-speed Internet advertised outside is right here, though: Crates of new gear that will become the guts of the telecoms infrastructure lie scattered across the floors.

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Currently, only about five per cent of Istanbuli business subscribers can access such high-end Internet services. However, universal coverage of business districts is planned to begin rolling out in the next two years. Facilities for average Istanbuli residents will be rolled out aggressively, but against an unknown time frame. Even more ambitiously, next generation networks capable of blistering 10 gigabits per second are also being rolled out as part of these objectives.

That is not a pipedream. The stuff is sitting in those crates scattered about the floor. Some of it's already in the racks.

Internet service is relatively cheap in Turkey, but actual levels of connectivity and use are amongst the lowest of the OECD countries. What takes place over the next five years or so will decide whether or not those levels improve significantly.

Just as was case with the Ottoman Empire, developments in telecoms and the Internet are intertwined with a whole bunch of current changes sweeping the Turkish media. A deluge of new newspapers and television channels makes the country one of the fastest growing media markets in the world.

But there is a giant paradox casting a pall on any claims of a golden age. Global rankings consistently rank Turkey low on the scale of journalistic, media and Internet freedoms (see here and here). The stranglehold of Internet censorship already in place is deeply problematic, but will get much worse when the " Bylaw on the Principles and Procedures Concerning the Secure Usage of Internet" kicks into action on August 22.

The aim is to create a managed Turkish Internet space designed to protect national values, youth, family structure and moral values. However, Professor Eda Çataklar of Istanbul Bilgi University condemns the new bylaw as being too broad with no clear way of removing the extensive list of banned words and URLs from the Internet blacklist that will be created. Anonymity online will become much more difficult, as well.

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The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual and Transgendered (LGBTT) communities fear they will be hit hard by these new restrictions. As one Istanbuli member put it, "LGBTT individuals will be non-existent in the cyberworld," if the new rules hold.

But there is still hope. Many observers see the measures as being at odds with Turkish constitutional principles and international norms and are urging the Turkish courts to rule them an affront to Constitutional guarantees to freedom of expression. There's also the belief that the rules clash with Turkey's commitments under European Human Rights agreements and the UN convention on civil and political rights (1966).

In a deeply interconnected world, the idea that Internet freedoms and communication rights are fundamental human rights is not a weird notion, but a baseline of civilized society. We should expect this as much in Canada as we would hope citizens of Istanbul can get it in theirs. The connection between the Internet and democracy is not one that arises out of thin air but, as with all media technologies historically, one that has to be forged on the ground, by the people and crucially those who represent them. Tom, are you listening?

Dwayne Winseck is a communications professor at the School of Journalism and Communication, Carleton University in Ottawa. Prof. Winseck been researching and writing about media, telecoms and the Internet in one way or another for nearly 20 years. He most recently edited The Political Economies of Media . You can read more comment on his blog, Mediamorphis . His column will appear every second Tuesday.

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About the Author
Telecom-Media-Internet columnist

Dwayne Winseck is a professor at the School of Journalism and Communication, Carleton University, in Ottawa. He has been researching and writing about media, telecom and the Internet in one way or another for nearly 20 years, with several books and numerous scholarly articles on the topic. More

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