After retaining control of parliament with nearly 50 percent of the vote, Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party remains fixated on introducing a compulsory Internet filtering system later this summer, even in the face of mounting criticism.
During a June 21 meeting with Google, Inc. Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, Turkish President Abdullah Gül reportedly defended the philosophy behind filtering. The meeting placed Gül in the awkward position of championing a form of censorship, even while paying homage to Internet freedom – and, with an apparent eye to Turkey’s popular image in the Middle East -- crediting the Internet with playing an important role in encouraging the Arab Spring.
"Necessary measures should be taken to preserve the family and children as well as personal rights. In this sense, your role is also important,” Gül advised Schmidt, Hürriyet Daily News reported, citing unnamed sources. “If you do not take measures to stop such abuses, then the state intervenes to do so.”
Turkey banned Google's YouTube video site for over two years because of videos denigrating the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. So far, the Turkish Telecommunications Directorate, or TİB, which administers the Internet in Turkey, has banned more than 70,000 sites (mostly pornographic), a European record.
Critics fear that thousands more sites could disappear under the TİB’s "Safe Use of the Internet” campaign. The program, which is scheduled to go into effect on August 22, will require all Internet users in Turkey to choose between one of four filters: "Children,” “Family,” “Domestic” and “Standard.” The four supposedly will provide various levels of protection against obscene sites.
In May, tens of thousands of people joined nationwide protests against the filters. The issue even threatened to become an issue in the June 12 parliamentary elections. The government’s June 11 arrest of 32 people, including nine minors, suspected of planning attacks on state-run websites to protest the filters further fueled the controversy. All of the detainees have since been released, but charges against them are still pending under Turkey's anti-terror laws.
Whether any form of protest can prompt the government to alter its plans is uncertain. A highly publicized meeting involving TİB representatives, academics, non-governmental organization (NGO) activists and other filter critics was “window dressing just to calm down the protests,” commented Noyan Ayan, technology editor for the Turkish news channel NTVMSNBC. “The government likes to be seen to be listening, to the protestors and NGOs. But . . . no attempt has been made to even to start to amend the proposal.”
An ongoing legal crackdown on Turkish websites furthers concerns about Turkey’s level of Internet freedom. In mid-June, the prosecutor’s office demanded that the popular website Eksi Sozluk (Sour Dictionary), a platform for alternative cultural and political views, submit the IP numbers of some of its anonymous users after it received complaints about what the users had written. Eksi Sozluk’s attorney, Basak Purut, says that a comment “considered an insult to Islam” sparked the complaint; the writers face possible prison terms of six months to two years on charges of inciting religious hatred and insulting personal dignity.
The website faces “between 20 and 40 cases every year,” many related to criticism of Ataturk, he added. “There is such a low threshold for an investigation that nearly any article can be investigated,” Purut said.
A 2009 report from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe highlighted that administrative decisions, rather than court rulings, led to bans on 80 percent of the sites on Turkey’s website black list.
The number of banned sites and government investigations into online content triggers alarm that “this filtering system is another way of controlling what Internet users read and do online,” commented Lucie Morillon, new media manager for the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders. Similar concerns have been raised by the European Union, which Turkey is seeking to join.
One expert on Internet rights dismisses the TIB assertion that it merely means to defend Turks from online content that is not family-friendly. "When they talk about the children, they mean the people. When they block sites saying it's protecting children, it means they want all the people not to see them," argued Yaman Akdeniz, an associate professor of law at Istanbul Bilgi University. "There are no other countries within the European Union or Council of Europe with such a similar system. Only countries like Iran, China and Saudi Arabia use filtering."
Meanwhile, during the run-up to the filters’ launch date, more protests could be in the offing, predicted NTVMSNBC Technology Editor Novan.
The example of the Arab Spring suggests that Turkey’s Internet filters “[i]n the long run, cannot be successful,” Novan said. “But in the short run, we will see a lot innocent people, mostly young, who will be prosecuted and suffer at the hands of people who regulate cyber culture with an analogue mentality.”
Dorian Jones is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.