Hak Pak Sak

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Archive for the ‘Censorship’ Category

Apple’s iTunes, NPR, Barriers to Giving, and the “Appliancing” of National Boundaries

Posted by Stephen Lewis on December 10, 2008

A central element of the ethos and significance – or at least the rhetoric – of the Internet Age is the transcendence of the arbitrary geographic and political boundaries we have inherited from the past and the liberation of the exchange of information, the conduct of commerce, and the formation of communities from the constraints of physical locations and boundaries.  Consider the following case to the contrary …

“This American Life”

I am – or rather was – a regular listener to Ira Glass’s wonderful eclectic radio program This American Life, broadcast over non-commercial, listener-donation-supported National Public Radio (NPR) in the USA and available courtesy of NPR worldwide over the internet.  The ubiquity of the internet had given me the luxury of listening to the program “on demand” during my long periods of work and residency abroad –  that is, if and when I can find an internet connection with sufficient bandwidth to stream the show.  To ensure enjoying This American Life without being tethered to my computer, whenever I stumbled upon suitable signals I took to downloading current and back episodes as podcasts via iTunes for later on my iPod and Blackberry.

Paid Podcasts

A few weeks ago, this system “crashed,” so to speak, and fatally at that.  While downloading podcasts to my computer in preparation for a long flight from New York to Istanbul and a few internet-less weeks thereafter, I discovered that I could gain access only the most recent episode of This American Life.  Podcasts of past episodes were only available for sale from Apple’s iTunes store at a price of $0.99.  This sounded very reasonable. By paying $0.99 for each one-hour-long weekly episode, I could  both obtain the programs and conveniently make regular donations to its support – an excellent alternative to the disruption of writing out a check or calling in a credit card number donating during National Public Radio’s seasonal on-the-air and over-the-internet fund raising drives.

Reinforcing Artificial Boundaries

Excellent, or so it seemed, until I read the fine print.  As it does with its iPhone, Apple “appliances” its services to geopolitical strictures inherited from the pre-Internet age and to a jingoistic concept of national identity quite contrary to the expansive spirit of This American Life and to the “worldwide” as in Worldwide Web.  Podcasts of This American Life are available for purchase and download via iTunes only from IP addresses within the boundaries of the United States.  Also, even within the US, Apple does not accept for payment credit cards issued by overseas banks.  Last, even when listeners from within the US attempts a purchase a credit card issued by a US bank, Apple will not sell them podcasts if their iTunes Stores accounts were originally registered from abroad.

By jigsawing its services to fit national boundaries, Apple fragments the efficacy and global scope of the internet and denies NPR broader listenership, international impact, and potential revenues.  By outsourcing  exclusive sales of podcasts of the This American Life to Apple’s iTunes Store, NPR denies the benefits and insights of listenership and the pleasure of contributing to the support of Public Radio to Americans living and working abroad, not to mention citizens of all other countries.

The Internet and Its Infrastructure

Those who participate with me off-line in the examination of the future of  infrastructure and the Internet will recognize in the above case a familiar conundrum.  The Internet — in its role as prime infrastructure for the formation of community and conveyance of the information, entertainment, knowledge and transactions — is intangible and without physical location.  However, the infrastructure that supports it is quite physical, an ad hoc non-purpose-built amalgam of fiber, copper, and wireless  strung together, enabled, and animated by protocols.  By resting on a “borrowed” infrastructure, the Internet has inherited the “gatekeepers” that own and control, charge for, and regulate these legacy elements – telecom operators and service providers, cable TV companies, governmental authorities, etc.).  Such organizations still carve up the world according to geopolitical entities and borders defined between the late-eighteenth century and the mid-twentieth and gerrymander services and access accordingly.  Apparently, so does Apple.  Apple’s method of “appliancing” country-by-country reinforces anachronistic borders and undermines the potential of the internet to transcend past divisions.

Apple and AK

Last month, a chance glace at Freedom Against Censorship Thailand led me to this report from the Christian Science Monitor re: Turkey’s current blockage of YouTube and Blogger, a reprise of its blockage of WordPress a year ago.  The present affair stems in part from a YouTube video posted by Greek football fans cast aspersions on the sexuality of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the iconic father of the modern Turkish state. Turkish law forbids the insulting of Turkishness and of the Republic, its founders, and symbols. Last year’s ban on all weblogs containing the name “wordpress” in their URL’s derived from a order issued by the local court of a religious neighborhood in Istanbul in response to a law suit filed by a Turkish “creationist” who claimed to have been libelled by an entry in a weblog hosted by WordPress.Com – an Internet Age case of “killing the messenger.”  The AK Party is Turkey’s ruling political party; the question of whether and how its incumbency prompts or facilitates such bans is a matter for discussion in another context.  For the moment, let’s leave it at saying that the heading to the present paragraph is a matter  of alliteration.  As to Apple, its geopolitical-entity-based approach to distribution of and access to podcast material is similar to Turkey’s operation of a “Great Firewall” congruent with its national boundaries and in accordance with its whims.  Opinions to the contrary?

Afterthoughts:

1. No More Newsprint, No More Disk(c)s

The Christian Science Monitor is America’s first venerable mainstream newspaper to end its print edition and become an exclusively online publication.  For details on the Monitor’s shedding of  its corporeality click here.  Not long after the Monitor gave up newsprint, Atlantic Records reported that for the first time its sales of music in mp3 format surpassed its sale of Compact Disc recording.  Music is by its very nature ephemeral and incorporeal and, in the scheme of things, the mere 100 or so years over which music has been distributed in the physical embodiments of phonograph cylinders and records, tape and CDs has been but a curious aberration.  A sad farewell to album cover art and liner notes, thus … and to slyly shaped invitations for guests to come over to look at one’s record collection.

2. Google and “The Great Game”

The Emergence of Google as the world’s prime search engine and the proprietary of Gmail, YouTube, and Blogger has given the “Company that Does No Evil” unparalleled knowledge of what is on the Web as well the ability to control how to find it. It also has given Google an unparalleled knowledge of who uses the web and how.  This has turned Google, a private company with no accountability to any constituency, into a negotiating partner of national governments whose laws or policies do not  reflect or respect the ethical stance claimed in Google’s own slogan.  Thus, Google now functions on a diplomatic level with the ability and clout to forge country-by-country compromises affecting internet activity and the free flow of information and opinion, Turkey’s YouTube and Blogger ban not least among them.  Click here for a journalistic portrait of Google’s emergence as a party to “The Great Game” of diplomacy via the New York Times Sunday Magazine.

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Posted in Censorship, Commentary, Content, Infrastructure, Internet, Media, Music, Podcasting, Politics | 2 Comments »

Turkish WordPress Ban Appears to Be Lifted: Religion, Secularism, Democracy, Web Neutrality, and Infrastructure

Posted by Stephen Lewis on April 23, 2008

I am writing this entry from Istanbul. From early 2007 until quite recently this had not been possible. HakPakSak, together with approximately 1.5 million other sites hosted by WordPress, had been blocked in Turkey, this the result of a weblog-based spat between two Islamic “creationists” (i.e. opponents of Darwin’s theory of evolution) both with links to their fundamentalist Protestant equivalents in the US. A law suit by one of the protagonists against the other led to an order from the district court of an ultra-religious quarter of Istanbul to block from view in Turkey all weblogs site containing the word “wordpress” in their URLs . Unquestioning bureaucratic compliance with the court order followed. (Click here for a somewhat longer past post on the subject).

The lifting of the blocking of sites hosted by WordPress (an unintentional internet analogue of the Cold War practice of “jamming” ideologically unacceptable radio-broadcasts) comes at an odd and stressful moment in the history of modern Turkey. Over the last months, the country teeters on the edge of crisis. A move by Turkey’s democratically-elected (but not necessarily democratic) government to lift a ban on the wearing of head-scarves by Muslim female students at the country’s universities has led to a counter-move from militant secularists on the left, center and right and an appeal to the Turkey’s highest court to mandate the dissolution of the country’s ruling party, the pro-Islamic Ak Party, and the banning of its leading members from participation in politics.

This drama is part of a larger conundrum in which Turkey’s conservative, pro-Islamic, ostensibly pro-European-Union-membership, ruling AK party is opposed by secularists spearheaded by parties (not all of them democratic) dedicated to the legacy of the founder of modern Turkey, Ataturk, and backed by the army and police. The conflict plays itself out in government, society, and the press, as well as in a shadow world of a “deep state” and conspiracies, provocations, and violence that would be the envy of Bush/Cheney/Rice/ex-Rumsfeld and Co. For detailed background and coverage, see this excellent report from the European Stability Institute, whose seemingly penetrating work I would even have even more faith in if they would be more open about the researchers and writers who comprise their team.

That Turkey could, within the framework of its domestic legal system and governmental institutions, quickly and easily block 1.5 million sites is even more disturbing than the current US conflict over the right of internet service providers to give “fast lane” priority to selected content and slow-down or block other traffic based on self-determined criteria. (For a short summary of the recent US Comcast affair and the debate over “web neutrality” see this recent article on CNET.)

In this week’s Linux Journal, senior editor Doc Searls turns to the question of the internet (and operating systems) as infrastructure. Within the context of this question, one of the issues I will try to address over the next weeks is whether and to what degree arbitrary, transitory clusters of capital and/or power — nation states as well as companies — should be allowed to deny access to or pull-the-plug on aspects of infrastructure, the internet included, that are not of their creation and that transcend their boundaries, especially as the conduct of business, intellectual activities, science, public debate and public affairs become more web-dependent.

More to follow…

Posted in Censorship, Commentary, Infrastructure, Internet, Politics | 1 Comment »

Byzantine Walls, Ottoman Dungeons, Genoese Towers, and a Little-Known Firewall: Turkey’s Ban on WordPress and HakPakSak

Posted by Stephen Lewis on November 5, 2007

Section of Byzantine Walls Istanbul

Above: An unrestored section of the great Byzantine defensive walls of Istanbul.

One of the pleasures of traveling by night train from the Balkans to Istanbul is the wonder of approaching this 1,700 year-old metropolis at dawn. The Turkish, Bulgarian, Serbian, and Romanian sleeping carriages that make up the Istanbul-bound Balkan Express rattle alongside the Sea of Marmara and then suddenly enter the historic core of the city through a gap in the Istanbul’s famed Byzantine-era walls not far from Yedikule, the Byzantine and Turkish tower enclosure that during Ottoman times had served as a quarantine for diplomatic missions arriving in the Ottoman capital from the West. The train continues around the edge of Istanbul’s historic peninsula past fragments of Byzantine and Ottoman sea walls, rickety 19-th century wooden dwellings, and the faceless concrete buildings that make up much of the city’s urban landscape. Finally, after the rounding the promontory below the Topkapi Palace, the train suddenly pulls in to its final terminus, the late-19th-century Moorish-Revival style railway station at Sirkeci.

The Great Walls of Istanbul

I spent this most of this past October in Istanbul. Before getting down to work, I devoted the first days of my stay to revisiting the city’s historic walls. The day of my arrival I took advantage of Sunday stillness to duck in and out of empty parking lots and clamber through deserted demolition sites in the usually crowded and hectic quarter of Galata in search of remaining lengths of the defensive walls of this one-time Genoese commercial settlement. Later that day, from the deck of a boat cruising the Golden Horn, I watched the sun set behind restored sections of Istanbul’s great Byzantine lands walls, from their water-side anchor at Ayvansaray upward towards the heights of the city near the Edirne Gate, Istanbul’s long-ago portal for armies and caravans leaving for the Balkans and Central Europe. The next day, with friends Grigor Boykov and Mariya Kiprovska (Ottomanist scholars presently resident at the Koς Institute in Istanbul) I traversed the full length of the Byzantine walls from the Marmara all the way back to the Golden Horn. Our walk took us from Yedikule past walled-in Greek and Armenian churches and former dervish Tekkes that dot what until very recently had been the near-rural backwaters of the city (indeed neither Byzantine Constantinople nor Ottoman Istanbul , even at their apogees, had ever grown to totally fill the city limits charted by the great land walls). On our way, we passed the centuries-old Roma (Gypsy) quarter at Sulukule, now threatened by planned urban redevelopment, the delicate filigree-like walls of the great Ottoman architect Sinan’s Mihrimah mosque, severely damaged in the earthquake of 1999, and the restored remains of the Tekfursaray, the Byzantine palace of Porphyrogenitus. In all, it took us only a little over three hours to stroll the full 6 kilometer length of the walls. A decade ago, the very same walk had taken me much longer. These last years, roadways have been cleared adjacent to restored sections the walls, channeling into near-straight lines what was once a zig-zagging route that in places challenged even the best map readers. The clearing of streets, neighborhoods, and shanty-towns abutting the walls marks a new axis of touristic development and gentrification in what throughout Byzantine and Ottoman times had been the barely-settled edge of the city’s historic peninsula. The restoration of the walls themselves has transformed a chain of crumbling but real ruins into a bright but artificial-looking anchor for future redevelopment.

Turkey’s Ham-Fisted Firewall

Alas, historic town walls were not the only walls I encountered on the first days of my latest stay in Istanbul. I also came up against a new, intangible, and far-less-well-known wall that has the potential of isolating the people of Turkey from contact, information exchange, and commercial transactions with the rest of the world. The government of Turkey, it appears, has chosen to join the ranks of China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan in deploying and setting to work a firewall capable of filtering-out and blocking any and all internet content deemed objectionable by civil authorities. Earlier this year, Turkey had blocked access to YouTube and, since this summer has also blocked all content hosted by WordPress.Com, including as many as 1.5 million weblog sites, this very site amongst them. Despite its scope and potential impact, the face of Turkey’s great firewall manifests itself quite modestly. When I attempted to log-on to this site from Istanbul, I was greeted with a white screen containing a simple red-headlined paragraph stating in Turkish and English that the site is banned by order of an injunction issued by the district court of Fatih, Istanbul’s most markedly religious and conservative quarter. The exact wording: “Site Closed: Access to this site has been suspended in accordance with decision no: 2007/195 of T.C. Fatih 2.Civil Court of First Instance.” The full story of how this came about can be read in this article — Shooting the Messenger — on the weblog of the Guardian (my thanks to Max Hartmuth for the reference). The summary version: Harun Yahya, a Turkish full-time “creationist” and anti-Zionist, brought suit against one of his competitors and detractors who allegedly was using a number of WordPress-hosted weblogs to libel him. In ham-fisted fashion, the Fatih court granted Harun Yahya’s attorney’s an injunction for the blocking of not only the offending blogs but of every other site whose URL identifies it as being hosted by WordPress. The injunction was implemented in equally ham-fisted fashion by the appropriate communications authorities. Anyone in Turkey who wants to read WordPress press can do so via a proxy server (kproxy.com, for example, or, for those who are gadgetry-minded and capable of reading fine print, Opera’s website-based simulator of its OperaMini mobile phone-browser). My attempts to post to this site, however, even via proxies, were unsuccessful.

Turkey’s Open-Armed Friends

Those of us who, like this writer, are friends of Turkey and who support the country on a number of crucial historical and political issues, including Turkey’s bid for EU membership, are put in an odd position by the WordPress ban. Although life will go on just fine without access to a million or so weblogs, the precedent of internet censorship and blockage of internet communication on this scale should be extremely disturbing for foreigners and Turks alike. It is also symptomatic of Turkey’s unfortunate propensity to quash debates and controversies when it would be better simply to let them aired. As a number of the military and diplomatic events that confronted Turkey in October seem to demonstrate, pushing debates and arguments into the future only causes them to fester. More on this in a subsequent entry.

Footnote: Strange Bedfellows

An interesting side-issue raised by the writer of the Shoot the Messenger posting on the Guardian website is the possible link between fundementalist Protestant “creationists” is the US and their Muslim fellow-“creationists” in Turkey. The US fundamentalist Christian right is quick to rant about imagined “culture wars” and so-called “Islamofascism” when it suits them but are all-too-willing to lay down with the “enemy” when doing so advances their own narrow interpretation of revealed religion and the subjugation of liberal education and free inquiry to enforced adherence to arbitrarily defined dogma.

Below left: An Ottoman tower at Yedikule at the Sea of Marmara end of Istanbul’s great defensive walls. Center: The interior of the tower, a one time detention-place for foreign envoys. Right: The 14th-century Galata tower, emblematic of the eponymous medieval Genoese trading colony, 19th-century Jewish neighborhood, and present-day center of gentrification.

Yedikule Exterior Yedikule Interior Galata Tower

Digital snapshots copyright Stephen Lewis, 2007.

Posted in Censorship, Cities, Commentary, History, Internet | 5 Comments »