When Turkish officials announced earlier this year that all internet users would soon be forced to sign up for a government-run filtering program (see this previous post), a loud outcry ensued, with protests and online campaigns forcing the government to reconfigure, though not completely abandon, its policy.
Today that new filtering policy is being put into effect. To get a sense of how the filtering program will actually work and what its intentions are, I sent a series of questions to Yaman Akdeniz, a professor of law at Istanbul's Bilgi University who is one of Turkey's foremost internet rights experts and advocates. Our email-based exchange is below:
1. How does the filtering system that was just started in Turkey differ
from the previously proposed -- and much criticized -- system?
It now becomes voluntary with two profiles. It was previously compulsory with four different profiles. There are some improvements but problems continue. The original Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK) decision was subjected to a legal challenge at the Council of State, which is the highest administrative court in Turkey. Subsequent to strong criticism of the proposed filtering system, and the pressure of the legal action, the Turkish authorities decided to modify their decision in August 2011.
Still, the Alternatif Bilişim Derneği (Alternative Information Technologies
Association), a Turkish NGO, challenged the August decision and lodged a legal challenge with the Council of State on 04 November 2011.
2. Turkish officials have said this new system is voluntary. Is that actually so?
The modified filtering system is no longer compulsory for the users and the new version includes only the “family” and “child” profiles. However, ISPs are compelled to offer the filtering service to their customers, and the filtering database and profiles are controlled and maintained by the government. A newly formed committee entitled “Child and Family Profiles Criteria Working Committee” was introduced by the government to address concerns regarding the establishment of filtering criteria. However, the formation of this committee already raised concerns as it does not look independent nor impartial. Moreover, concerns remain that moral values will be imposed by the state authorities.
3. The filtering program's supporters say it's needed to protect "families and children" from harmful material. From your perspective, what is the actual rationale behind the filtering program?
BTK and Turkish policy remains fixated with blocking and filtering as the main tools for the protection of children from harmful content. The Turkish authorities continue to assume that filters are the best tool for child protection, while international organizations dispute that. A recent OECD report stated that “the protection of children online is a relatively recent area of public policy concern, and many countries are in the process of re-assessing existing policies and formulating new policy responses.”
Approaches therefore vary but usually blend “legislative, self- and co-regulatory, technical, awareness, and educational measures, as well as positive content provision and child safety zones.”
I also believe that the Turkish authorities are not only trying to protect children but also adults from the "so called harmful content".
4. What are some of the more troubling elements of the filtering program?
The BTK system does not promote diversity, and on the contrary tries to create a single type of family and moral values imposed by State authorities. Regardless of the “optional nature of the system,” BTK will be controlling the criteria for filtering (this criteria remains unknown as of November 16, days before the system came into force), and the ISPs are compelled to offer the system to their users.
Although children do not have an absolute right to freedom of expression, restrictions can only be provided by law rather than through a decision of the BTK, an agency which has no legal basis and whose decisions have received no legislative scrutiny through the Parliament.
5. Can you say a bit about the role BTK is playing in Turkish social and
political life now?
BTK started to act as control mechanisms for the Internet, all in the name of children. Although the state authorities have a compelling interest to protect children that interest should not extend to adults, and the Internet policies they introduce should differentiate between child and adult users. Both the blocking policy put into place through Law No. 5651 and the new filtering regime do not reflect this fundamental concern.
Although Turkish government officials have portrayed the filtering program as focused on protecting children from harmful material, it also clear that it will have a political element to it. From a Deutsche Welle article about the program:
According to the government, the filter would protect children and youth from "objectionable content" on the Internet. In addition, "separatist propaganda" by groups such as the PKK Kurdish rebel organization is also to be banned.
An 11-member government commission came up with the list of more than 130 search terms deemed "harmful." Internet freedom advocates criticized the group's composition, as it was composed exclusively of officials from the ministries of information and family, and did not include any independent experts.
Among the banned search words are the English terms "porno," "sex," "adult," "fetish," "escort," "mature" and "gay," as well as the Turkish words for "naked," "hot," "sister-in-law," "mother-in-law," "stepmother" and "incest." Curiously enough, the German word "Verbot" (ban) is also forbidden.
According to findings from the press freedom organization Reporters Without Borders, access to more than 7,000 Web portals could be either completely blocked or heavily limited.
Apart from various pornographic sites, this could also include several online services provided by Google, Myspace and the video service Vimeo. Access to the video site YouTube has been blocked several times in Turkey in recent months.
The Turkish state has a long history of treating its adult citizens like children. In that sense, the current Justice and Development Party (AKP) government's approach to the internet seems old-fashioned, rather than forward looking.