Friday, May 9, 2008

Internet Speech and the YouTube Frenzy

An Ankara court announced Tuesday that it has restricted access to the video-sharing website YouTube in response to videos posted on the website that defame Atatürk. Since moving here, I have come to expect YouTube to only be accessible about fifty-percent of the time. Luckily, providing proof that technology continually provides avenue to maneuver around state obstacles, a Turkish friend excitedly showed me that I can use a proxy server to get around the ban (people here are proud of navigating their way around law and bureaucracy). The YouTube bans are yet another example of restrictions on the freedom of speech and expression and raise interesting questions about the political dimensions of the Internet.

YouTube bans have been issued multiple times in the past two years in response to various videos insulting Atatürk in one way or another. I wonder if it has almost become a game for pimply-faced teenagers to create a new video, post it on YouTube, and see how long it takes for access to the entire site to be blocked as a result. Past videos have depicted Atatürk as gay and as a monkey. Once the videos are discovered, a court from somewhere in the country will issue an order to Türk Telekom, the only internet service provider here, and access to YouTube will be blocked.

Internet Technologies Association (İTD) President Mustafa Akgül criticized the practice as inane in Today's Zaman.
YouTube officials say they are ready to cooperate with Turkish courts and
authorities to ensure Turkish users’ access to the popular Web site. But Turkish
officials seem reluctant to cooperate with YouTube on the matter for whatever
reason. Turkish courts block access to this Web site without informing YouTube
management of videos considered problematic. I don’t know why they refrain from
cooperating with YouTube. The courts only evaluate complaints from Turkish users
about videos deemed insulting to some values to which the Turkish nation
attaches great importance and block access to the site.”
Akgül adds that shutting down YouTube for the publication of a single video that can easily be removed is tantamount to shutting down a library because of a single book. After a ban was removed in March, YouTube issued a statement saying they had reviewed the videos and removed them because they violated YouTube's content policy. YouTube bans videos that the website considers pornographic or obscene. Clearly benefiting from the advertising dollars the website rakes in, it is not as if YouTube would not be willing to cooperate to avoid restricting the thousands of young people who regularly access the site.

Restricting access to websites is facile because of a law that went into effect last year that gives courts the right to issue court orders restricting access to certain website. Türk Telekom is legally required to abide by the order.

YouTube is not the only website that has been restricted. In April, access was restricted to GoogleGroups, a fact I also learned by trying to access a news group of which I am part. No reason was given for the GoogleGroups ban, but it is interesting in that it is not only a restriction on freedom of speech, but also of association. GoogleGroups is used by individuals not only to post various information, but to engage in online discussions with one another. Other sites that have been restricted include the blog publishing site Kurdish websites accused of broadcasting terrorist propaganda are also frequently shut down.

Restrictions on Internet Access obviously raise serious concern about freedom of speech in Turkey and have drawn the attention of numerous critics. Similarly, increased censorship also calls for questions about how Turkish citizens view Internet speech, which has in many ways revolutionized the means by which various individuals and groups are able to convey political messages. The recent poll by, a project of the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, about which I posted about yesterday (see post) shows that 60 percent of Turks surveyed think that they should have unrestricted access to the Internet while 30 percent thought that the government was justified in restricting access to some sites. Interesting is that the 60 percent number is much higher than the 45 percent of Turks surveyed who agreed that the government should not prevent the press from publishing stories it considered politically destabilizing.

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