Ron Miller: Restricting the Internet is a business killer

Turkey might be about to learn how attempts to control the population by limiting the Internet can backfire

Turkey is the latest country to mess with the Internet, passing a law that, according to GigaOM, enables authorities to block content at the URL level. When will countries learn that limiting the Internet is a horrible idea?

That's because the business benefits of an open Internet far outweigh whatever a government might think it can gain by controlling Internet access in some way.

Just this week, in fact, Tim Berners-Lee, marking the 25th anniversary of his founding of the World Wide Web, talked to Wired about the dangers of country-based control and a balkanized Internet. "I want a web that's open, works internationally, works as well as possible and is not nation-based," Berners Lee said. He didn't mention Turkey specifically, but it's clear he is wary of any attempt to control access.

The BBC reports that the new Turkish law would allow Turkish authorities to shut down websites without a court order. This is on top of the thousands of websites that have been blocked already. The BBC quotes the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as calling Twitter a scourge, and it says he has been openly critical of social media, presumably because protesters have used it to organize in his country.

This viewpoint is particularly odd when you consider that just a few years ago, Turkey was the featured trade partner at the huge CeBIT technology fair in Germany. At the time, 50 companies from Turkey participated in a special exhibit designed to show off the country's high-tech expertise. I recall Erdogan giving a speech at the opening ceremonies in which he celebrated the number of Turkish homes that had Internet access and trumpeted his country's growing high-tech business community.

Today, apparently in the face of growing social unrest in Turkey, the prime minister has had a change of heart, and decided it's better to shut off easy access and all the business benefit that brings in the name of control. We've seen how well that worked in Egypt a few years ago.

In 2011, about the same time the Turkish prime minister was speaking at CeBIT, during the Arab Spring protests in Egypt, the Egyptian government shut down the Internet. The thinking behind this not-so-brilliant move was that protesters were using the Internet to communicate, and shutting off the communications backbone would put a stop to that. But according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the shutdown, though it lasted just a week, cost the Egyptian economy $18 million per day, or $90 million for the shutdown period. That's a high price to pay for a bit of control.

And in the end, it didn't work. The protests continued, even without the Internet, and President Mubarek eventually ceded power.

It's hard to know whether Turkey's incremental control over Internet access will have a similar outcome, but it's bound to have consequences that aren't beneficial to the country. One possibility is that businesses in Europe, the U.S. and other nations will decide that it's too risky to invest in the country's high-tech business sector.

That chance, along with other potential consequences of Turkey's action, cannot be good for an emerging economy looking to establish itself as a growing technology center. Showing contempt for the Internet, the very engine of the modern technology economy, does not encourage investment or entice entrepreneurs to use Turkey as a base. Governments have to understand that investors and entrepreneurs have choices, and the best and the brightest can easily head to places that are friendlier to their ideas for new business.

In the end, shutting down free speech, limiting Internet access and displaying scorn for technological advances never work, and chances are this is going to backfire on Turkey.

Everyone benefits from an open Internet. Will governments never learn?

Ron Miller is a freelance technology journalist and blogger. He is an editor at FierceContentManagement and a contributing editor at EContent Magazine.


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