Turks stand up to internet censorship

Turkish people are no strangers to internet censorship, but recent filters have led to collective action.

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The new filters, proposed by Turkey’s Information and Communication Technologies Authority, may be put into place in August [GALLO/GETTY]

From Ankara to Istanbul, and in numerous cities in between this past Sunday, thousands of citizens took to the streets in protest of proposed new internet filters. In Istanbul’s Taksim Square alone, more than 50,000 people, largely organised on social networks, gathered in protest. More than 600,000 people joined a Facebook page called “Internetime Dokunma!” or “Don’t Touch My Internet!”

The new filters, proposed by Turkey’s regulatory authority, the Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK), would be put into place in August, with local internet service providers mandated to offer four filters: “family, child, domestic, and standard.”   

Activists in Turkey are concerned that the filters would allow not only government censorship of websites, but also greater intrusion into subscribers’ online habits. In addition, BTK has proposed a list of banned words for use in domain names. The list, published by Hurriyet newspaper, includes a total of 138 words, including the English terms  “hot” and “free”, as well as a number of Turkish words with dual meanings.

Turkey is no stranger to online censorship. In 2007, the Law on the Internet (or the Regulation of Broadcasts via Internet and Prevention of Crimes Committed Through Such Broadcasts) No. 5651 was enacted, allowing a variety of actors (including the government) to petition the court or the Telecommunications Authority to filter certain online content. 

The different types of content that can be blocked in accordance with the law are: obscene content; content constituting “crimes against Ataturk”; prostitution; providing of a place and opportunity for gambling; sexual abuse of children; encouragement of individuals to commit suicide; supplying of drugs dangerous for health; and facilitation of the abuse of drugs.

The law has been used on numerous occasions to block sites hosting information deemed to “insult Turkishness”, including YouTube, which has been blocked on and off since 2007 as a result of certain offending videos remaining on the site.

Edip Yuksel is one blogger who has felt the effects of the Internet Law first-hand. A lawyer and self-described Islamic reformer, Yuksel has seen a number of his sites blocked in Turkey following the complaints of Adnan Oktar (pen name Harun Yahya), a Muslim creationist writer whose complaints also resulted in the 2008 blocking of evolutionist Richard Dawkins’ website in Turkey.

In August of 2008, a court blocked WordPress.com in response to a petition filed by Oktar’s lawyers, claiming that Yuksel had used WordPress to post offensive content about Oktar. While Oktar’s lawyers initially applied to have only certain pages blocked, they later applied for a blanket prohibition following replication of the allegedly defamatory content on other WordPress.com blogs. 

The government stated that, pursuant to the court order, all WordPress.com sites were blocked because the technology did not exist to block a single blog or page. Wordpress wrote about the incident at the time, republishing the letter from Oktar’s lawyers. The popular blogging platform has been blocked intermittently since 2008.

Yuksel, who has decided to file a lawsuit against the Turkish government at the European Human Rights Court for vexatious litigation, has expressed frustration at the system that keeps his websites banned:

“It has been five years… Though my lawyers reversed a few court cases, the sites are still blocked by some other courts… Though the article causing the ban has been deleted from the site, the ban still remains. There is no law, no justice, and no logic in these bans.”

Current internet law provides the opportunity for site owners to exercise their right of reply against a content ban; however, this right is usually given after a site has already been blocked.

According to Freedom House’s 2011 report, a total of around 5,000 sites were blocked as of July 2010. 

The latest attempt to filter the internet may be seen as the last straw for many Turks, who have organised against internet censorship in the past but never in such large numbers. Though in some cities – including Ankara – attendance was rather low, the overall turnout in over forty cities was higher than ever before for a single protest date, prompting significant international attention.

Jillian York is director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. She writes a regular column for Al Jazeera focusing on free expression and Internet freedom. She also writes for and is on the Board of Directors of Global Voices Online.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.