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November 21, 2011

Turkish telecommunications authorities will soon introduce a new Internet filter that would ban pornographic and separatist material online, despite numerous demonstrations decrying the move as censorship.

Keyboard with one red key showing the Turkish flag and the work Türkiye
The filter blocks terms ranging from 'sex' to 'stepmother'Image: kebox - Fotolia.com

On Tuesday, a new Internet filter is set to go into effect across Turkey.

It was originally planned to be introduced three months ago, but was postponed until November 22 for "technical reasons," according to the government.

In the meantime, tens of thousands of Turks have held protests across the country under the motto "Hands off my Internet!" Media outlets and Internet forums have also sharply criticized the plan.

Although Turkish officials have called the filter "voluntary," fears persist that it could lead the way toward even more restrictive Internet policies.

Search term blacklist

Supporters have called the filter, recently passed under an electronic communication law, a new consumer protection regulation.

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.

Man at computer with dithered image of person on screen
The government says the filter is meant to protect minors from pornographyImage: AP

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.

Worries from abroad

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has spoken out in favor of Internet freedomImage: dapd

International observers have also expressed concern over the filter, with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saying during a visit in July that she did not find it "necessary or in Turkey's interest to be cracking down on journalists or bloggers and the Internet."

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe called the filter "another dimension of censorship," and said it would limit the individual rights to freedom of information.

Voluntary or compulsory?

The Anatolia News Agency reported that as of this week, Turkish Internet users can voluntarily use the filter, which has been set up by Internet service providers.

About 22,000 of Turkey's 11.5 million Web users have allegedly opted in.

But the Alternative Information Technologies Association has filed a petition with Turkey's highest administrative court to cancel the filter legislation, saying the measure is not voluntary, as claimed.

"Internet service providers wouldn’t deny the list provided by the administration, and wouldn’t avoid setting up the infrastructure with regard [to] this," the group said in a statement.

The group alleges that the measure amounts to an administrative end-run around free speech.

While Joe McNamee, of European Digital Rights - an advocacy group based in Brussels - also interprets the filter as being mandatory, he said calling Web blocking "voluntary" is "far easier politically."

"The EU in particular has an unfortunate history of promoting ineffective, counter-productive and intrusive measures under the banner of 'child protection,'" he added.

"Turkey and China have started duplicating this approach to justify their most recent restrictions to Internet freedoms."

Pro vs. con

Yaman Akdeniz, a Turkish human rights expert and professor at Bilgi University in Istanbul, said the filter was a cornerstone for further censorship of the Internet.

Demonstrators with PKK flag
Kurdish separatists are also targeted by the filterImage: AP

"The whole thing may be presented as a service to create a more secure Internet, but in reality it's downright censorship by the state," he told Deutsche Welle.

Özgür Uckan, another professor at Bilgi University, said a filter on child pornography would be positive, but that the general limit to Web access was "in the long run a systemization of censorship."

There are some in Turkey who welcome the filter, like Günseli Ocakoglu, a columnist for the conservative daily newspaper Zaman. He said several other European countries have similar Internet restrictions.

"The Turkish constitution sees protection of the family as one of the fundamental missions of the state," he wrote. "Thus the state has to take the corresponding measures to protect families and minors from the dangers of the World Wide Web ... In the end, no one will be forced to apply a filter."

Whether the filter will actually come into effect as on November 22 appears to be in doubt - as does the ability of users being able to dodge the filters.

Regardless, the debate in Turkey over freedom of information and censorship will continue.

Author: Murat Celikkafa and Sonya Angelica Diehn / acb

Editor: Sean Sinico / Cyrus Farivar