A man looks at the YouTube site on a laptop in Istanbul, on March 27, 2014
Istanbul (AFP) - Turkey on Tuesday began hosting a major UN-backed forum on Internet governance despite criticism of its "abysmal" record for limiting Internet rights.
The Internet Governance Forum (IGF) is an annual global gathering that aims to bring together governments, activists and business to discuss how to regulate and encourage use of the web.
"We need to spread knowledge and share the benefits of the Internet through bridging the digital divide," said UN Assistant Secretary General Thomas Gaas as the four-day meeting opened.
Yet the choice of Istanbul as the venue for the meeting has been highly contentious, given Turkey's patchy record on Internet freedoms which included temporary bans on YouTube and Twitter this year.
The authorities led by then prime minister -- now president -- Recep Tayyip Erdogan were widely condemned for cracking down on the Internet in the wake of last year's anti-government protests sparked by the planned redevelopment of Gezi Park in Istanbul.
YouTube and Twitter were eventually unblocked after court rulings, but Erdogan has made no secret of his disdain for social networks, comparing them last month to a "murderer's knife" and once famously vowing to "eradicate" Twitter.
Human Rights Watch decried that Turkey has "an abysmal record of protecting free expression online", saying that tens of thousands of websites had been blocked under legislation passed in 2007.
Meanwhile, new legislation passed in April greatly expanded the surveillance powers of Turkey's National Intelligence Agency (MIT), giving it sweeping powers to amass private data, HRW said.
- 'Wake-up call' -
"I think an event like this is really a wake-up call to Turkey that if it wants to be part of a group of nations that respects Internet freedom and freedom of expression it's really got to change its ways very quickly," Andrew Gardner, of Amnesty International, told AFP.
He pointed to the case of 29 people on trial in the western city of Izmir over Tweets posted during last year's protests that are claimed to have incited their followers to break the law.
"It should be seen as a warning signal to the thousands of others who use the social networks to share their ideas and opinions," he said.
But he said that Turkey was by far from the worst offender when it came to Internet freedom, with Iran and China even lower down the table.
The head of Turkey's telecommunications authority BTK, Tayfur Acarer, made no mention of Turkey's sporadic online crackdowns but acknowledged that "governance and Internet is a part of our lives in a very serious way".
"The digital divide is getting narrower," he said.
Catherine Novelli, US Under Secretary of State, described the Internet as "a tool of growth" but added that it was important that "strong societies could tolerate other voices".
"We are pleased that they (Turkey) chose to host this Internet governance forum. It is giving voice to other segments of the society," she said.
EU digital technology commissioner Neelie Kroes, who is attending the forum, said she would be pushing Turkish officials for greater media freedoms and pluralism.
"I want the people of Turkey to enjoy the freedom and prosperity they deserve," she said in a speech in Istanbul earlier Tuesday.
"More than ever it is clear that the Internet makes it much harder to censor and repress. Governments are increasingly powerless to prevent the free exchange of ideas," she said.
Rashid Ismailov, Russia's Deputy Minister of Communications, whose government has also been under fire for an online crackdown, said there needed to be a balance between "the protection of human rights and security on the Internet".