Monday, December 8, 2008

Google and Turkey's Internet Laws

From Jeffrey Rosen in New York Times Magazine:
In March of last year, Nicole Wong, the deputy general counsel of Google, was notified that there had been a precipitous drop in activity on YouTube in Turkey, and that the press was reporting that the Turkish government was blocking access to YouTube for virtually all Turkish Internet users. Apparently unaware that Google owns YouTube, Turkish officials didn’t tell Google about the situation: a Turkish judge had ordered the nation’s telecom providers to block access to the site in response to videos that insulted the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, which is a crime under Turkish law. Wong scrambled to figure out which videos provoked the court order and made the first in a series of tense telephone calls to Google’s counsel in London and Turkey, as angry protesters gathered in Istanbul. Eventually, Wong and several colleagues concluded that the video that sparked the controversy was a parody news broadcast that declared, “Today’s news: Kamal Ataturk was gay!” The clip was posted by Greek football fans looking to taunt their Turkish rivals.

Wong and her colleagues asked the Turkish authorities to reconsider their decision, pointing out that the original offending video had already been voluntarily removed by YouTube users. But after the video was taken down, Turkish prosecutors objected to dozens of other YouTube videos that they claimed insulted either Ataturk or “Turkishness.” These clips ranged from Kurdish-militia recruitment videos and Kurdish morality plays to additional videos speculating about the sexual orientation of Ataturk, including one superimposing his image on characters from “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” “I remember one night, I was looking at 67 different Turkish videos at home,” Wong told me recently.

After having many of the videos translated into English, Wong and her colleagues set out to determine which ones were, in fact, illegal in Turkey; which violated YouTube’s terms of service prohibiting hate speech but allowing political speech; and which constituted expression that Google and YouTube would try to protect. There was a vigorous internal debate among Wong and her colleagues at the top of Google’s legal pyramid. Andrew McLaughlin, Google’s director of global public policy, took an aggressive civil-libertarian position, arguing that the company should protect as much speech as possible. Kent Walker, Google’s general counsel, took a more pragmatic approach, expressing concern for the safety of the dozen or so employees at Google’s Turkish office. The responsibility for balancing these and other competing concerns about the controversial content fell to Wong, whose colleagues jokingly call her “the Decider,” after George W. Bush’s folksy self-description.

Wong decided that Google, by using a technique called I.P. blocking, would prevent access to videos that clearly violated Turkish law, but only in Turkey. For a time, her solution seemed to satisfy the Turkish judges, who restored YouTube access. But last June, as part of a campaign against threats to symbols of Turkish secularism, a Turkish prosecutor made a sweeping demand: that Google block access to the offending videos throughout the world, to protect the rights and sensitivities of Turks living outside the country. Google refused, arguing that one nation’s government shouldn’t be able to set the limits of speech for Internet users worldwide. Unmoved, the Turkish government today continues to block access to YouTube in Turkey.
Click here for full article. Rosen goes on to examine Google's use of I.P. blocking in a variety of other cases, including requests made by neoconservative U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman to block sites the senator considered "jihadist." As Rosen propounds, Google's role as the "Decider" certainly places the world's largest information search engine in a truly powerful position, ultimately determining what content may be seen in what country.

As Rosen notes, Google's IP blocking technique has failed to mollify Turkish critics. YouTube continues to be intermittently banned for a variety of offenses, as do a number of other websites, including GoogleGroups, WordPress, and most recently, BlogSpot. Under a law passed in May 2007, Internet websites can be banned by Turkish courts or blocked by Internet service providers under a variety of circumstances, including personally offending someone. Adnan Oktar, a prominent Turkish creationist, has successfully petitioned to have a number of websites banned, most famously Richard Dawkins'.

Human rights activists have grown increasingly concerned with the new law, which appeared in the annual reports of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. The law has also drawn criticism from European Union officials, most recent being British MEP Richard Howitt. Most damaging diplomatically, the law was cited as unduly limiting freedom of expression in the European Commission's most recent progress report on Turkey's progress toward accession, and is also likely to play prominently in the European Parliament's upcoming report.

In documenting rights violations that have occurred under auspices of the new law, Kerem Altıparmak and Yaman Akdeniz have authored a recent book, Restricted Access, alleging the law to be in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. According to Altıparmak and Akdeniz, violations are not limited only to undue restrictions on the freedom of expression, but also rights to a fair trial and privacy. They have also assembled a website to document and publicize the violations. From TDZ:
Akdeniz and Altıparmak argue that Law No. 5651 was rushed through Parliament just before the Parliament was dissolved for the 2007 general elections and that it had not received broad public support before or after its enactment. Universities and experts, including bar associations, were not consulted about the bill, either.

The authors point out that Web sites can only be blocked if they commit crimes listed under Article 8 of Law No. 5651: encouraging suicide, sexual exploitation of minors, encouraging drug use, supplying harmful substances, obscenity, providing a forum for gambling and prostitution. Web sites may also be banned under other laws, such as the Law on Intellectual and Artistic Works. After examining the many instances of Web site bans over the past year, Altıparmak and Akdeniz suggest that many of the blocking orders that have been issued are actually against the law.

“It is unlawful for the courts, judges and public prosecutors to issue blocking orders and precautionary injunctions outside the scope of these two provisions. Based on this view, blocking orders issued outside the scope of these provisions should be lifted by the courts that issued the orders in the first place,” they claim.

Aside from the issue of the law itself, blocking Web sites is simply an inadequate method for combating illegal content, the authors argue. “Blocking as a preventative policy measure has been explicitly dismissed within the context of terrorist use of the Internet at the level of the European Union. Furthermore, circumvention technologies are widely available, and the filtering and blocking mechanisms and methods currently used in Turkey are easy to circumvent even for inexperienced Internet users. The futility of the current blocking measures is evidenced by the fact that was the 16th most accessed site in Turkey according to the Web site on Aug. 18, 2008, almost three months after the latest blocking order was issued,” the writers point out.
For full article, click here.

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