Turkey Blocks: Censorship monitoring app nabs Digital Activism Award

by Jane Whyatt

An app deisgned by the Turkish-British Alp Toker has been honoured with a Freedom of Expression prize. It aims to beat back censorship and the online blocking of critical journalists in Turkey.

Alp Toker Turkey Blocks Alp Toker becomes one of four Index fellows receiving Freedom of Expression Awards in different categories, 20 April 2017.

Toker's Turkey Blocks received the Digital Activism Award from Index on Censorship at a recent ceremony in London. And now the inventor and technologist aims to offer the application to groups in other countries where critical reporting and individual journalists or NGOs are censored online.

“Our alerts, issued within minutes of detection, have helped Turkish citizens to stay online when shutdowns get implemented and provided the media with enough confidence to report assertively on digital censorship in Turkey,” Toker has stated.

He spoke to the ECPMF after receiving the award.

ECPMF: What does it mean to win a prize for Turkey Blocks?

It’s very meaningful to us. We have to assess censorship, we have to understand how much censorship there is on the ground, so that we can fix it. It’s important for the community too, for other projects. Index is just doing an amazing job!

How are things in Turkey? Have you noticed a difference since you’ve been monitoring it?

The situation is bleak. We try to take a positive approach.  We try to find situations which aren’t so bad, where we can be positive and say – oh look, it hasn’t been censored! The problem is that things are getting worse. There are more threats online, there’s more harassment online. These problems only combine with the censorship to create an overall environment of danger and risk. It’s not getting better. We need to keep watching and keep pushing back.

Index on "Turkey Blocks"

"In a country marked by increasing authoritarianism, a strident crackdown on press and social media as well as numerous human rights violations, Turkish-British technologist Alp Toker brought together a small team to investigate internet restrictions. Using Raspberry Pi technology they built an open source tool able to reliably monitor and report both internet shut downs and power blackouts in real time. Using their tool, Turkey Blocks have since broken news of 14 mass-censorship incidents during several politically significant events in 2016. The tool has proved so successful that it has begun to be implemented elsewhere globally." Source: Index on Censorship, Digital Activism 2017

Turkey has voted narrowly in favour of granting more powers to President Erdogan to act in an executive way, with less power for elected parliamentarians. How will the referendum vote change things?

The referendum is problematic in several ways because there are two groups of people who disagree. And that will always cause problems. At the moment, some people think that it will provide stability, but it doesn’t look that way. There doesn’t seem to be a solution in sight. If you don’t agree with something, you speak up for it. And it’s not OK to suppress those voices. Things need to go through the right procedure. If there are complaints, then there is a process and there is a right to question the results in these scenarios, and that needs not to be disrupted.

Technically how does Turkey Blocks work?

Turkey Blocks monitors pages, content, the internet - much as ordinary users would. And then we use stats. We use statistics to analyse this. It’s actually big data, clustering, time series analysis - the same kind of thing startups are starting to use. But instead of using it to track customers and take people’s personal data, we use it to try to understand patters in the data so that we understand what’s happening in real time on the ground.

How are you going to take the campaign forward now, following the success of Turkey Blocks?

It’s not really a success, it’s a bit of a failure that we have this situation in Turkey now. But we do want to take some of our experience now to other countries. Because it’s something that can be reproduced quite effectively – even on a global scale. That’s the nice thing about algorithms - they scale very well. So there’s no need to sit on it and I think it’s also a matter of getting some input back in; maybe there are some people who could help us make it better. We’re all about fixing Turkey and getting people across the divides to talk, from all sides of the debate. But we do also want to get it out there to the rest of the world as well.

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Source information: This article was originally published by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom –