Friday, April 29, 2011

The Forbidden Zone

The Turkish government via the Prime Ministry's Information Technologies Board (BTK) recently introduced a system in which websites bearing domain names carrying certain words will be automatically banned. Yesterday the government, through the Telecommunication Directorate (TIB) sent the list to Internet service providers ordering that website carrying these domain names be banned. From Hurriyet Daily News:
The affect of the decision could see the closure of many website that feature the banned words. For example, the website “” ( because the domain name has “animal” in it, a banned word and likewise “,” ( would not be able to operate under its current name because it has “anal” in it; also among the 138 banned words. Websites cannot have the number 31 in their domain names either because it is slang for male masturbation.

Some more banned English words are: “beat,” “escort,” “homemade,” “hot,” “nubile,” “free” and “teen.” Some others in English have different meanings: “pic,” short for picture, is banned because it means “bastard” in Turkish. The past tense of the verb “get” is also banned because “got” means “butt” in Turkish. Haydar, a very common Alevi name for men, is also banned because it means penis in slang.

“Gay” and its Turkish pronunciation “gey,” “çıplak” (naked), “itiraf” (confession), “liseli” (high school student), “nefes” (breath) and “yasak” (forbidden) are some of the other banned words.
Obviously there are problems with the list, and I do not think I have to mention that a website does not contain pornography just because an Internet domain site includes the word "gay."According to Yaman Akdeniz, who is at the lead of the fight for Internet freedom in Turkey, the government is in violation of the law. As draconian as Turkey's 2006 Internet regulation might be, there indeed seems little legal basis for what the BTK is doing.
“Hosting companies are not responsible for monitoring for illegal activities; their liability arises only if they take no action after being notified by the TİB – or any other party – and are asked to remove certain illegal content,” Akdeniz said.

The TİB cited the Internet ban law number 5651 and related legislation as the legal ground for its request. The law, however, does not authorize firms to take action related to banning websites.

“The hosting company is not responsible for controlling the content of the websites it provides domains to or researching/exploring on whether there is any illegal activity or not. They are responsible for removing illegal content when they are informed and there is the technical possibility of doing so,” according to Article 5 of the law.

On Thursday, following the heated debate surround the “forbidden” list, the TİB said the list was sent to hosting firms for informatory purposes. But the statement further confused the situation, as the body threatened companies with punishment if they did not obey its directions regarding the list in the first letter sent to service providers.
So, not only is the government violating rights to freedom of expression on a large scale, it is not even acting according to the rule of law -- at least not yet. The ban on domain names occurs at the same time the government is moving to implement a new regulation that paves the way for such infringements in the future.

As far as I can tell, the BTK is not citing recent regulation as the legal basis for its authority to demand internet service providers block access to these domain names, instead basing its authority on the 2006 Internet Law (No. 5651), which I have written about extensively. This law is draconian, but what is coming seems even worse.

The new regulations gives the government the authority to block and filter websites according to its own designs (independent of any court order), and importantly, not make its blocking and filtering practices public. Though the old regulation does give the TIB the authority to block access to websites, the authority blocking the website, whether the TIB or a specific court, is public information and the person trying to access the website encounters a message that the website is blocked. The TIB also acts on a set of criteria determined by the 2006 Internet law. For more on the old law, click here. If anyone can give me more information on the legal scheme here, I would much appreciate it.

Though Turkey has made considerable democratic progress in the past 10-15 years and in many ways improved its human record, this backsliding on media freedom raises serious questions about its democratic trajectory. Increasingly, the government seems to take the position that they can do anything they want as long as they are elected by a majority. Liberal democracy this is not. Electoral authoritarianism? Maybe.

UPDATE I (5/5) --  Bianet, a new portal from which I post regularly, is challenging the new regulations at the Council of State. Other websites are also following suit, and it might not be too much longer before the European Court of Human Rights is inundated with another round of freedom of expression cases in Turkey. Here is hoping the government repeals this insanity now and begins to work with experts on Internet law to pass a new Internet law that does not violate rights to freedom of expression and access to information, at least not on such a massive scale. For a bit of legal analysis from experts quoted in Hurriyet Daily News, click here.

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