When Apple’s iPad went on sale recently in Turkey it sold out in less than an hour. The voracious appetite of Turks for web gadgetry seems matched only by the Turkish government’s desire to control access to the Internet.
Turkey already has the unenviable record of banning more sites than any other European country. The number is believed to be around 12,000, although official figures haven’t been released since 2009. Now the number seems set to skyrocket following the adoption of new regulations by the Turkish Telecommunications Directorate, or TİB, which administers the internet. TIB has recently banned the use 138 words on Turkish domain sites.
For example, sanaldestekunitesi.com (virtualsupportunit.com) faces closure because it has one of the proscribed words, “anal,” can be found in its domain name. The number “31” too is banned, as it is slang in Turkish for male masturbation. Other banned words include English words "gay," “beat,” “escort,” “homemade,” “hot,” “nubile,” “free” and “teen."
Turkey’s Internet advocates have strongly criticized the new measure, warning of chaos and substantial losses to net users, providers and customers. “I think the TİB personnel who worked on the issues related to banning access are not endowed with the necessary technical knowledge and skills" said Devrim Demirel, founder and chief executive officer of BerilTech, Turkey’s leading domain name and business intelligence company.
The changes are ostensibly designed to protect children, TIB officials claim. Thousands of sites have already been individually banned by the courts for similar reasons. The country’s governing Justice and Development Party, (AKP) with its Islamist roots, has used the same reasoning to introduce tough controls on the public consumption of alcohol.
Experts say it is relatively easy for Internet users in Turkey currently to circumvent controls by re-registering abroad, as there are many ways of accessing blocked sites via proxies and by using open domain servers. Legions of web users are believed to routinely flout the government’s restrictions. Past scofflaws include none other than the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who once admitted to reporters that he accessed the YouTube video sharing site, which was banned at the time in Turkey. The ban was reportedly instituted because of a number of videos hosted on the site that denigrated the memory of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish state.
Even more draconian measures are set to take hold this August. Under the banner of "Safe Use of the Internet," all Internet users will have to choose from one of four filter profiles provided by Internet Service Providers. "We are concerned that the government [will] enforce and develop a censorship infrastructure" said Yaman Akdeniz, a law professor at Bilgi University in Istanbul and an expert on Internet-related legal issues.
"Even the standard profile is a filter system, and the problem is, it is government mandated, government controlled,” Akdeniz continued. “There are no other countries within the EU or Council of Europe that has a similar system.”
Civil society activists, meanwhile, are concerned by the way in which the new controls were adopted: officials resorted to governmental decree, shunning parliamentary debate and approval. It is a method of rule-making that AKP leaders of late have used with growing frequency. In 2010, for example, a government decree banned couples from going abroad for artificial insemination. The new Internet regulations were not widely known until they were publicized by a Turkey-based human rights website, Bianet.
The fear is that the new filters will be used to block not only pornographic sites, but also the political ones. "Depending on the government, depending on the ministers, one can be put on the blacklist” said Bianet’s head Nadire Mater. ”This is not democracy. We’ve experienced this before, because police from time to time distributed these blacklists to Internet cafes or companies: we were getting complaints from the visitors. They were saying that we don’t have any access [to] Bianet.”
The new regulation will also open the door for unspecified sanctions against anyone who seeks to circumvent filters, or who seeks access to proscribed websites. Under the new filter system the government will have access to individual web-user data.
Sites that are banned, as well as the criteria used for banning them, remain secret. "Already under existing controls, along with pornographic sites, hundreds of political sites are banned” said Akdeniz, the law professor. ”And although the government claims that they predominantly block access to pornographic websites, several hundred alternative-media websites, especially websites dealing with the Kurdish debate, are blocked for political reasons."
The new controls are now being challenged in the Danistay – Turkey’s highest administrative court. A number of cases are also pending at the European Court of Human Rights, including a case over the banning of the YouTube.
Dorian Jones is a freelance journalist living in Turkey.