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Turkish censorship

June 1, 2011

The Turkish government has defended plans requiring Internet users to sign on to a national filter system. Rights experts call the scheme an unprecedented and heavy-handed attempt to control information.

Keyboard with one red key showing the Turkish flag and the work Türkiye
Officials said filters will be transparent; experts disagreeImage: kebox - Fotolia.com

Turkey's government on Tuesday said it continued to support a new law that will filter the Internet and, it said, cut off access to websites that display pornography, bomb-making tutorials and violent content.

But thousands of protesters marched in 30 cities across Turkey in mid-May to express their opposition to the government's new system setup to filter the Internet.

The new government system calls for Internet users to select one of four filtering options: including family and children's filters, a domestic profile that will block foreign sites and the standard option won't add any filters but will continue to prohibit access the thousands of websites Turkey already bans, each by a court order.

The problem, according to Fatmagul Matur of a political group called the Young Civilians, is that many Turks blindly assume the government will take care of them.

"In Turkey, the state is called the father, and your father protects you from dangerous ideas and dangerous things, or sexual things," she told Deutsche Welle.

Map of the world showing Internet freedom rating for 2011 from the Freedom House
Turkey was recently listed as partly free by the Freedom House

Protecting families and children

Government officials, including Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, said the filters are only meant to protect children and families from harmful online content. Many Turks are not Internet savvy and don't know how to install personal filtering software.

Tayfun Acarer, the head of Turkey's telecommunications regulatory agency, denied that the filters would be mandatory and said that the measures are only meant to enforce Turkish law.

"Turkey is more transparent than many other countries regarding this issue," he said. "When you go to a banned site in a European country, you see only a flag or a stop sign. But if a website is blocked in Turkey, it is always clearly stated when, why and by which institution the page was banned."

But the Internet community in Turkey is concerned that the government has more sinister motives since the filter could represent the first step towards an even more restrictive Internet policy.

"They are trying to develop a control mechanism, and they are using smut and children as an excuse to set up a system in which they can at least attempt to control the Internet," said Yaman Akdeniz, a law professor at Bilgi Unversity who specializes in Internet issues.

Transparency questions

The national filter system in place, the government will be able to add sites to the blacklist freely without asking a judge, Akdeniz said.

A lack of transparency is another concern as the list of blacklisted sites would also not be made public. Access could be cut to online material critical of the government or companies close to the ruling party without any form of explanation.

"There are no criteria, anything can be included within that black list," Akdeniz added.

Kids using a computer
It's not up to the government to protect kids from what's on the InternetImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Internet activists said filters are effective ways for parents to protect their children from material they don't want in their homes, but add that the decision is a personal one - not one that should be dictated by the government.

"Lots of governments block sites in a non-transparent manner, that happens all the time in authoritarian regimes, but it doesn't happen typically in democracies," said Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.

Economic game changer

Few Turkish websites have fought as many court battles as Eksisozluk, or "Sour Dictionary," one of Turkey's oldest, biggest and freest online communities. Founder Sedat Kapanoglu said the new filters will be a financial burden for his site and sites with adult content. He added that he expected to lose ad revenue because of decreased traffic.

"If they make the family plan the default, it will change all the rules of the game in Turkey," he said. "Many mature content websites won't be able to make a living in Turkey."

A veteran of about 100 legal cases, chaotic Internet legislation already makes legal representation crucial to Internet business in Turkey, Kapanoglu said, adding that his company has two software developers and five lawyers.

"We can reverse a court decision in a day or so right now, but you still need to go to a judge and teach him about the Internet," Kapanoglu said. "He doesn't know how Internet works, how websites work, you have to educate each and every one of them until you get more saner decisions."

In the meantime, Bianet, a media freedom NGO, has brought a lawsuit seeking an injunction against the Turkish filter system. A final court decision on the case is expected by the end of June.

Author: Matthew Brunwasser / sms

Editor: Cyrus Farivar