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U.S. domain deregulation could fragment World Wide Web into ‘Splinternet’

Some governments ponder decoupling from World Wide Web and create an intranet

- - Sunday, May 4, 2014

ISTANBUL — When Turkish communications minister Lutfi Elvan told daily newspaper Hurriyet last week that he was planning to "detach" Turkey from the global Internet, he quickly became a target of ridicule around the World Wide Web.

"The man is clearly an idiot," Andrew Duff, a member of the European Parliament, tweeted in one derisive response.

Others wondered how such a move — to create a homegrown "ttt." protocol to replace "www." — was even possible for Turkey, a NATO member and key U.S. ally.

"They would probably prefer to have such an intranet [local online network] nationwide like North Korea, but I don't think they can pull that off," said Erkan Saka, an assistant professor of communications at Bilgi University in Istanbul. "They are still part of the global economy, after all."

Even so, such plans illustrate how certain governments, frustrated by the "Wild West" of the Internet, are taking advantage of efforts to regulate it as President Obama relinquishes U.S. oversight of domain names that form the basis of websites and virtual networks.

Last month, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is under the Commerce Department, announced that it would lessen the government's role in overseeing website addresses. The nonprofit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers will help guide the transition.

Critics say the administration is ceding control to foreign countries.

Although few nations besides North Korea can afford to cut themselves completely from the Internet, digital rights advocates caution that Mr. Elvan's comments reflect how governments are threatening to chill online liberties.

At stake are the innovation and free exchange of information that have transformed global culture and business over the past two decades.

"In the next two years, there will be decisions of sweeping proportions about the future of Internet," said Gigi Alford, senior program officer at Freedom House, an independent human rights watchdog based in Washington.

"One serious threat is the fragmentation of the global Internet into national 'spInternets,'" Ms. Alford said. "If users in different countries have different experiences of the Internet, then we're replicating the old analog way of living as a fragmented global community, with all the analog inequalities and restrictions."

Analysts point to the Great Firewall of China and Iran's Halal Internet as examples of governments' walled-off virtual spaces that block access to thousands of international sites in favor of tightly controlled domestic versions of Google, Facebook and Twitter.

Though Turkey lacks such technological sophistication, its crackdown on social media has intensified over the past months after leaks showing apparent government corruption appeared on Twitter and YouTube.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered the two services blocked and threatened to "eradicate Twitter" to show the international community "the power of the Turkish republic."

But these moves are meant mainly to intimidate social media users, Mr. Saka said.

"They are demonizing social media. We see more and more articles about the evils of social media, especially in pro-government media," he said. "Maybe in Turkey they cannot implement a nationwide intranet for now, but they are really doing their best to restrict Internet usage."

Ahmet Sabanci, an Istanbul-based blogger and digital activist, said censorship often takes place in subtle ways under the pretext of protecting the general public from online dangers.

"My blog is blocked to those using the government-regulated family safety filter but I don't really know why," he said.

Turkey also is among a group of countries seeking to force American and other foreign social media companies to open cloud computing, data storage and other facilities on their territory, where they would be subject to Turkish regulations, surveillance and taxation.

Mr. Erdogan has accused Twitter of tax evasion and said he will "go after" the social media company even though it doesn't have offices in Turkey.

"This latest plan to tax Twitter is a threat that Turkey likely hopes will create a chorus of complaints from other governments and force the company to hand over some control, whether legal or financial," said an email by Jochai Ben-Avie, policy director of Access Now, a New York-based nonprofit dedicated to defending digital rights. "I doubt the Turkish government will be successful."

Meanwhile, developed countries such as Germany have considered creating "national Internet spaces," ostensibly to protect their citizens from incursions such as those attributed to the National Security Agency.

In privacy-obsessed Germany, outrage was particularly strong after revelations last year that the NSA had been monitoring German communications, including those of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Turkey's Communications Ministry backed off its substitute Internet plan after a firestorm of criticism and denied any attempts to block off Web access. Ministry officials said Mr. Elvan was referring more broadly to the global debates over Internet regulation.

Despite that denial and skepticism of Mr. Elvan's threats, critics of the Turkish government are preparing to bypass any major roadblocks to the Web.

In Istanbul, the free speech Pirate Party is gearing up to install "meshnets" — primitive networks of interconnected wireless routers that allow users to communicate relatively freely via the Internet despite government efforts to suppress access.

"Maybe after the presidential election [in August], they could try to create their own Internet, as the minister stated," said Pirate Party spokesman Serhat Koc. "We have to be ready for anything."

Mr. Sabanci said experience has shown that the Turkish government should not be underestimated.

"Right now, Turkey is using very basic tools for censoring the Internet, but now they are trying to get to the same level as China and Iran," he said. "They want to go as far as they can."