Turkey to launch domestic Google, Gmail replacements aligned with local culture and values

Turkey is building a domestic search engine and email service compatible with national culture and values, according to statements by Ahmet Arslan, Minister of Communication, in a television interview on Friday.

The domestic search engine will seek to enforce “national values and culture” (NTV)

Arslan stressed the urgency of the plans in the live NTV interview, citing the need to store user data within Turkey’s borders and ensure that communications could be fully analysed domestically.

Aspects of the plan had already surfaced in previous weeks. Though former Minister of Communication and present PM Binali Yildirim floated the idea earlier, the new interview is the first to reveal Turkey’s motivations for commissioning the project. Details such as the service’s name, branding and organisational structure have yet to be announced.

Analysis of emails and search requests

A series of damaging leaks in 2016 highlighted Turkish ministers’ reliance on the popular US-based cloud email service Gmail for day-to-day communications. As Turkey’s tensions with the West continue to rise it is believed the leadership may be seeking to enforce a home-grown system less susceptible to surveillance by the US and its allies and more readily exploitable by its own intelligence agencies.

The new revelations come just a couple of days after Turkey’s gazette for official announcements Resmi Gazete detailed provisions to enforce data retention and prioritise local tendering of IT services. Arslan stressed the need to build local expertise in technology and the government’s ambition to export the system to other markets in order to capture foreign communications data for analysis.

Economic and cultural impact

Domestic search engines have been in use for some time in China and Russia and Iran. Competing products like Google search, Yahoo Mail and Gmail are typically, but not always, blocked by authorities to encourage adoption of the domestic counterparts.

A recent study [Sung Wook Ji, 2015] asserts that domestic search engines can provide economic benefits by retaining advertisement revenue, boosting relevancy of local search results and restricting cultural influences deemed incompatible with national values.

However the policy risks isolating Turkish citizens from the international community and could raise barriers to international trade, particularly if coupled with blocking measures against competing products.

Foreign businesses including PayPal, Amazon and eBay are already unable to operate in Turkey and Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are often throttled to limit coverage of political incidents and attacks.