Q&A

Internet access is a basic human right: A Q&A with Keren Elazari

Posted by: Nadia Goodman
Keren Elazari speaks at TED2014. The day she gave her talk, we spoke to her about TK. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Keren Elazari speaks at TED2014. The day she gave her talk, we spoke to her about the shutdown of Twitter in Turkey. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Two weeks ago, hours after Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vowed to “wipe out” Twitter, his government blocked access to the platform across the country. It was just weeks before a hotly contended election, and Erdoğan was upset about tweets accusing him of corruption. A judicial ruling in Turkey called for Twitter to take down the offending links, but when Twitter did not comply, the Turkish government opted to block the site. (Since then, the courts have deemed the ban illegal, but the government has yet to lift it — and instead banned access to YouTube as well, reportedly due to a security leak.)

Other governments have also tried to block access to parts or all of the Internet in the past, including Egypt’s Internet shutdown in January 2011 and Syria’s in May 2013. As it happened, cybersecurity expert Keren Elazari was talking at TED2014 about the effects of the Egyptian shutdown and others like it around the same time as news of the Turkish Twitter ban was starting to trend on Twitter.

In her talk, Elazari said that hackers play an essential role in giving power, or free access to information, back to the people when governments try to take it away. We were curious to hear her take on the situation in Turkey, so we sat down with her to discuss the ban and the uneasy relationship between tech companies, like Facebook or Twitter, and governments. An edited version of our conversation follows:

So what’s really going on in Turkey?  

While Egypt had Tahrir Square and other places around the world had other social uprisings and revolutions, in Istanbul it happened in Taksim Gezi Park. This is because of some controversial decisions and acts by the current Prime Minister of Turkey, Tayyip Erdoğan [NB: Erdoğan's party, the Justice and Development Party, won a victory in the nationwide local elections 10 days after this interview took place, a show of support from voters despite stronger-than-usual opposition]. We don’t think of Turkey as a dictatorship, right? It’s fairly modernized. In fact, it’s one of the most modernized and democratized countries in the Muslim world.

But in the last few years there have been a lot of struggles. There have been a lot of questions with regard to the elections that they had, and with regard to democracy, and with regard to the separation of Islam as a religion from state affairs and from military affairs.

This was a huge deal, by the way, for Turkey, when it became a modern nation. Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish modern nation, really had this ideology of separating religious affairs from secular affairs and military and state affairs. And that has been slowly changing, even reverting back to more traditional, less liberal values, in the past couple years, and this is the reason that there are a lot of uprisings and revolts and conflicts within Turkey. This has to do with some traditional or religious values coming into sharp conflict and contrast with a more modernized world that wants free access to all kinds of information and freedom from oppression.

It seems like social media is playing a really critical role in bringing stories to light. Del Harvey, head of safety at Twitter, addressed this in her talk. One of her team’s roles is to make sure that Twitter is not inadvertently blocking things like a citizen journalist sharing a really important video. It seems like this is a critical role of social media and governments are scared, so they’re trying to shut it down. That seems unsustainable, no?

But they’re still trying. They’re still freaking out. Because governments used to have control over the propaganda channels, the communication channels, the printing presses, the radio stations… When you would take over a country, you would take over these things and indoctrinate the population and use propaganda. Now, anyone has a printing press, and they can put out revolutionary pamphlets.

So because they are freaking out, they are overreacting. So not only is it unsustainable, it’s also causing this overreaction. We see this again and again. In Egypt, when Mubarak tried to shut down the Internet in order to stop the revolution, not only did it not stop the revolution, perhaps it even propelled it even more.

It seems like it incites the rest of the world to care.

Not just the rest of the world, even people there. Even people in Cairo who maybe didn’t know what was going on found out from the Internet and Facebook. They didn’t get the reports from the TV channel or the government radio. And when the internet was shut down, then they had to go out to the streets to see what was going on, and to be part of it.

People talk about the social network revolution. It’s obvious that Twitter and Facebook do not cause a revolution, and they don’t overthrow governments. Years of dictatorship, years of overreach and years of abuse cause people to want to overthrow governments. Social media and the web — open access to information — are tools and the scaffolding that allows this to happen, and allows the world to know. We can sit right here now in Vancouver, and we can know about what is happening in Caracas, what is happening in Turkey, what is happening in Egypt, in Tunisia.

There’s a lot of responsibility on the companies that run these services — on Facebook and Twitter and on the foundations of the Internet. And a lot of that responsibility lies with American companies. And here, here’s the rub — all this power, all these companies, are based in the US, and the US government, the most powerful Western democracy in the world, has been trying to manipulate and control the web. It makes other governments feel like maybe it’s okay to do this sort of thing. If the Americans don’t make a fuss about it, why should anyone else? That erodes the sense of democracy.

You mean that America tries to champion freedom, and yet we’re not actually embodying it?

A lot of this complexity rises from the relationship between corporations and governments. You have to kind of hope that multinational corporations have the responsibility, they have the right morals and the values. But they’re not democratic government. They’re businesses that make money. Their ethos is usually the bottom line, the shareholder value. All though they try to “do no evil”  – is that really possible?

What responsibility do you think these companies have?

What’s interesting is that this is not Turkey vs the US government; it’s Turkey vs Twitter, headquartered in San Francisco. Or in the case of the Great Firewall of China, it’s not China vs the US government; it’s China vs a corporation, Google.

These are very different types of relationships, and I think both sides of those relationships are still figuring it all out. The web giants hold the world in their hands. What will they do? How will they react? Will they make business decisions or will this be about values? It’s very unclear, and we’re in the first skirmishes of the future of this world. To me it is very clear that the power of multinational conglomerates is extremely important. It’s not just what the NSA or the US government or even the Turkish government does. There are a lot of moral decisions on the shoulders of CEOs.

What should those CEOs be thinking about as they face those kinds of moral challenges?

This is very complicated, but ultimately, can we afford these to be the decisions of boards of directors who are concerned with the bottom line? This is why the nature of the Internet originated as decentralized, but in essence we’re losing that aspect of it. Because it’s not so decentralized any more. It’s almost feudal. There is a small group of landowners, and we live on their land.

It’s very complicated to ask a business owner or a company to think about how their decisions affect policies and people and revolutions. They’re having a coffee on Market Street in San Francisco, but their decision affects what happens in Rezi Park, in Tahrir Square, in Caracas… we can only hope they do take these things into account.

How do you think hackers help to balance that power, and help to make it so that it’s maybe not quite so dependent on those people?

Hackers make connections happen. It’s very clear, if Anonymous cares about what’s happening in Venezuela, I should care about what’s happening in Venezuela. They actually connect people, they don’t only break stuff. I saw images from the protests in Caracas because the Anonymous Twitter account was posting them. That’s how I learned what was happening there – not from CNN.

It’s also important to have those, yes, chaotic elements. It’s really important for companies and governments to know that if they overreach, if they do uncool stuff, there is someone that can react. There is someone out there, maybe lots of people out there, who chaotically, and in a disorderly and sometimes illegal fashion, can intuitively self-organize to react and respond and get important information out there, or even expose overreach and corruption.

Hackers have evolved as the web has evolved. They’re an integral part of it. And they’re a vital role in it. It’s not organized, it’s not orderly, a lot of them do bad stuff. But overall, I’m hopeful about it. Because for me, it means that this world we live in, which is more and more reliant on digital services, which are run by money-driven corporations, also has someone that can be the counterbalance. They alert our attention to what is happening and to the threats (technical and social). I think that’s important.

What do you think that governments are failing to understand as they continue to try these often fairly misguided efforts to shut something down entirely?

They’re applying 20th century thinking to a 21st century world. There’s this line from a Israeli song, “I’m an analog guy in a digital world.” Lots of governments are analog guys in a digital world, and they think they’ll just shut it down. You can’t. It just doesn’t work that way. But secondly, they’re also positioning themselves as an “us vs them.” They think they can cordon themselves off or build a secure environment. Hackers gonna hack. They’re going to take down those walls. So there is no such thing as unhackable. And even if we could design an unhackable world, I don’t know if I’d want to live there. That sounds kind of like The Matrix. It’s totally controlled and organized by the AI. That’s kind of creepy.

In your talk you said that “access to information is a critical currency of power.” I loved that, and it’s so true. It really seems like shutting down parts of the Internet is removing power from the people in your country. It’s sort of cutting them off at the knees.

Definitely. The Internet is a basic human right. And our world is changing. Really, we are moving towards that Matrix kind of reality where our lives, our brains, will be backed up to the cloud. And who controls that cloud? Who says what’s okay and not okay to go on the cloud, or on the Internet of things? We have these technologies, but we haven’t thought about these implications. The technology’s out faster than we know what to do with it. Policy is way behind, politics is way behind, governments are way behind. Even the corporations that are building it, companies like Amazon, Google, they’re building AIs and drones — are they thinking about the meaning of it? These technologies can quickly become our new overlords, while national governments are still stuck in 20th century reforms.