Free speech advocates: Stop Turkey’s plan to censor the Internet

Story by Erin Kelly

ISTANBUL, Turkey – “Sex,” Irem Esen, a student at Istanbul Bilgi University, said, giggling. She pauses.  “Blond… mini-skirt.”

These are just a few of the words Esen has heard that, if included in an Internet domain name, will make a website inaccessible once the Information and Communication Technologies Authority, or BKT, implements a compulsory web filtering system set to go into effect on Aug. 22.

"This site has disabled access to the court decision," is what appears when trying to access a blocked website in Turkey. Richard Dawkins, an atheist, had his official website banned by a court order in 2008, after a Muslim creationist claimed its contents were defamatory and blasphemous.

The legislation, called “Procedures and Principles Regarding the Safe Use of the Internet,” will require Internet users to choose from four packages – standard, domestic, family and kids – with the purpose of protecting children and families from “unsafe” or “obscene” content distributed on the web. Each package will filter certain websites and content to a different degree.

Many Internet users feel their freedom is being compromised.

Esen has heard a lot of speculation about the new system, but is unclear about details.

“Maybe they are rumors, maybe they are facts,” she said. “The government doesn’t give us specific information. We heard websites are going to be banned, but we don’t know anything else.”

Internet filtering, or the process of government-blocked websites, is not a new concept in Turkey. Ozlem Dalkiran, a human rights defender who collaborates with Bianet Organization, a country-wide network for monitoring and covering media freedom and independent journalism, said there are already more than 30,000 banned websites administered by court decisions or BKT rulings in Turkey.

Though the Internet in Turkey was once largely a free medium, this changed when laws restricting Internet content were introduced in 2005. In May 2007, the Law on the Internet (or the Regulation of Broadcasts via Internet and Prevention of Crimes Committed Through such Broadcasts) No. 5651 was passed by parliament and signed by President Ahmet Needet Sezer.

Law No. 5651 introduces criminal liability for people who post content that fits into an illegal category, detailed in Article 8. Illegal categories include obscenity, criticizing Ataturk (Turkey’s founder), prostitution, promoting gambling, facilitating the sexual abuse of children, encouraging suicide, and supplying illegal drugs. If such content is posted, the law requires immediate removal, either by authorities or by the Internet Service Providers (ISP) themselves. Consequences for ISPs or hosts who refuse to block access to illegal content include imprisonment for up to two years.

Ragip Baris Erman, an associate professor of law at Bilgi University, explained the four filter categories.

“One [filter] is the same category as always, which is the standard package,” he said. “Then there will be the inland, or national package, which will ban all foreign websites…The family package and children package will have different sets of filters, so you can either ban all online games, or all kinds of pornography.”

Those who do not choose a specific package will use the standard package by default, which will not restrict anything more than what is already blocked today, he said.

However, there are currently ways to get around the filtering system, or access blocked websites, such as DNS routing and anti-filtering software. But after the new filtering system goes into effect, these methods will no longer be useful.

Part of the reason for this is that the ISPs will be responsible for complying with the standards of anti-filtering software, and will be criminally or administratively responsible if Internet users are able to use anti-filtering software or DNS routing through their sites, Erman said. Also, the new filters themselves will eliminate any chance to use DNS routing.

A controversial aspect of the filtering system is the list of 138 “key words” distributed by the directorate of Telecommunications Communication Presidency (TIB) to domain providers in April. Erman said that if any words on the list are found in ISP domain names, the website will be automatically filtered, or blocked for all Internet users in Turkey. Though the words mostly relate to pornography, others are ambiguous, he said.

“Animal,” “beat,” “fire,” “free,” “hot,” “story,” “partner” and “team” are all words on the list, Erman said.

“’Animal,’ for example, could mean something in relation with pornography, but also something completely different,” he said.

Yet the meaning of this list is still debated. A press release from the BKT distributed in May emphasizes this list was formed upon the examination of complaints against websites, and is meant to be a guideline for domain providers, not a list of words that will automatically be filtered.

The Bianet Organization has challenged BKT in court by filing a complaint to the Council of State in Turkey, aiming to stop the implementation of the filters, and await a judicial decision.

Nadire Mater, project advisor of Bianet, calls the new filtering system “active censorship.”

“These regulations are absolutely unacceptable, and absolutely against the freedom of expression,” Mater said. “It is a new way, one other way, of controlling Internet users.”

Though the BKT claims the system will help parents control their children’s Internet usage, Mater questions their motives.

“The government claims that it is not a censorship, it’s just a protection for the family and the children, she said. “But [the government] does not know what family values are, from where it starts to where it ends. [The filters] mean they are going to control which websites we visit. I don’t want this, it’s not the state’s business.”

Bertan Tokuzlu, an associate professor of law at Bilgi University, said Turkey has a history of Internet censorship. In the past, Youtube, Google Groups and Blogspot have all been blocked for designated periods of time. Tokuzlu feels the legislation is a slippery slope toward greater restrictions in other areas of personal freedom.

“Censorship is prohibited in our Constitution, but I see this as an initiative for de facto censorship,” Tokuzlu said. “It looks like we’re going to adopt something like China, which is scary for us.”

Despite demonstrations and rallies against the filters, the AKP is backing the initiative and will remain in power, leaving it up to the judicial system to stop implementation.

“The government does not want to understand this [negative] reaction,” Mater said. “But if we get this verdict from the court, [freedom of expression] will be more open, and [Turkey] will be better for all of us.”


About carlenehempel

I teach journalism at Northeastern University in Boston, and am leading a team of students abroad to report and write.
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