Tuesday, July 20, 2010
It was a big success, last Saturday. More than a thousand people gathered in Taksim Square to protest against restrictions on the Internet. Among the demonstrators were nongovernmental organizations calling for freedom of the Internet, representatives of Internet sites and their readers and employees of private enterprises who are negatively affected by Internet censorship. For the first time, more than fifty NGOs, civil initiatives, human rights organizations and online communities managed to form a ‘Common Platform Against Internet Censorship’ (www.sansursuzinternet.org.tr) that will continue to protest against what was called ‘unlawful and arbitrary efforts to control the Internet.’
Three years ago, few people expected things to turn so nasty. In May 2007, the Turkish government enacted Law no. 5651 to regulate publications on the Internet and to suppress crimes committed by these publications. It was a reaction to concerns about defamatory videos available on the popular video sharing website YouTube involving the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. But the law was also meant to deal with the growing number of websites showing child pornography and other obscene content and sites providing information about suicide and drugs.
In the first year after its adoption, the most well-known application of Law no. 5651 concerned YouTube. After several Turkish courts ruled against the site because it showed some amateurish Greek videos bashing Atatürk, the Ankara 1st Criminal Court of Peace issued the final blocking order in May 2008.
At that time, few people took the ban particularly seriously. Many, including myself, thought this was a rearguard action by some old fashioned members of the judiciary that would lead nowhere because everybody, including the government, would soon recognize that in this day and age, the banning of websites does not make sense. I remember Egemen Bağış, the chief EU negotiator, when questioned in the European Parliament on the YouTube ban in 2008, telling the parliamentarians with a big smile that this was a temporary nuisance and that his son had shown him how to circumvent the ban for the time being. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made similar remarks when journalists reminded him that access to YouTube was blocked. ‘I can get in,’ he replied, ‘and you can get in as well.’
The whole ban seemed ridiculous, soon to be overhauled by reality and common sense. The mood of many was captured well by a reaction on Internet, saying: ‘Some pimply teenager in Greece who slapped some rouge on an Atatürk picture and made a silly video must be feeling an incredible sense of power now. Through an act that should have been interpreted as nothing more than a demonstration of immaturity, he’s managed to prevent the 75 million inhabitants of Turkey from accessing a site in which Turkey’s culture, beauty and music can be shared with millions around the world. How little trust the people behind this continuing ban must have in Atatürk’s ability to survive a childish video, and their citizens’ ability to decide for themselves what to watch or not.’ But this was only the beginning.
In January of this year, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, or OSCE, of which Turkey is a member, published a damning report on Internet censorship in Turkey. It was prepared by one of the people who saw the dangers of Law no. 5651 from the beginning, Dr. Yaman Akdeniz, associate professor at Istanbul Bilgi University. According to the report, up until December 2009, access to approximately 3,700 websites had been blocked under Law no. 5651. More about the conclusions of the report and the damage done to the perception of Turkey abroad in my next column.