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Thursday, 23 August 2007

Wonderful censorship

After a month of grey London, it was sheer joy to land in Istanbul and step out into sunshine brighter than the orange easyJet plane that brought me to it. What wonderful weather, I thought to myself.

I sailed through customs at the delightfully small Sabiha Gökçen Airport and promptly arranged for the Havaş driver to take his bus via Levent, which is closer to home, rather than direct to Taksim, which is slap bang in the centre of town. This he did just for me. What wonderful people, I thought.

Then I jumped on a minibus to realise I didn't have change for the fare, and made to get off to find a cash machine. But another passenger jumped up and paid the driver for me. What a wonderful country this is.

So when I settled down in front of my computer that evening for my semi-regular tromp around a few favourite websites, I was feeling rather happy about things. And happy I stayed, right up until I typed in the address for Jake's Foreign Perspectives blog and was confronted with a rather rude message, complete with dodgy translaton:

"Bu siteye erişim mahkeme kararıyla engellenmiştir.

T.C. Fatih 2.Asliye Hukuk Mahkemesi 2007/195 Nolu Kararı gereği bu siteye erişim engellenmiştir.

Access to this site has been suspended in accordance with decision no: 2007/195 of T.C. Fatih 2.Civil Court of First Instance."


Turkey has banned WordPress, the blogging platform. This is not a move without precedent; the popular definitions site ekşisözlük and, more famously, YouTube have both been blocked in the past. Turk Telekom's virtual monopoly on internet access in Turkey makes a ban an easy thing to enforce. There is, after all, just the one service provider to submit a court order to. Such a ban wouldn't be as easy in a place like Britain, where multiple companies maintain the country's internet infrastructure.

The man behind this ban is the Turkish creationist Adnan Oktar, more popularly known by his pen name Harun Yahya. It seems Mr Oktar took offence at some sentiments expressed about his person on a certain WordPress blog, and proceeded to have his lawyers ban the entire platform. Mr Oktar's lawyers were also behind the ekşisözlük ban, which was only lifted after the entries about him were deleted.

Censorship in Turkey has long been extensive. When it comes to certain sensitive subjects - be it the Kurds, the Armenians, the hidden state or the military - Turkish journalists have always exercised a degree of self-censorship. Even ordinary Turks have a habit of lowering their voices when talking politics, lest they be overheard. In such an environment, the mere recalling of books and banning of websites can be almost second nature.

But despite its long history of censorship, the Turkish state has yet to realise that it just doesn't work. When YouTube was banned for an anti-Atatürk video that appeared in its wares, every other Turkish internet user found a way of watching the video to see out what the fuss was about. I myself have met authors who are delighted when their books are banned and taken away by the police. It makes people want to read them. Surely it's like dealing with a spoilt child - giving attention only makes it worse.

I have very little time for Mr Oktar. He is not an intelligent man. The legal action he has taken against certain WordPress blogs are completely in character and, as far as I can see, without much justification. I don't see how a tiny blog can do much personal harm to him.

But my personal thoughts aside, there is a bigger issue here - the fact that it is possible to ban parts of the Internet in Turkey. The courts should not be able to close entire websites in responsible to a single libel claim. More important than that, though, the internet access of an entire country should not rest in the hands of one single company, however privatised it might be. It's time to break up Turk Telekom.

7 comments:

BadTyrpist said...

An amusing anecdote on censorship-

A friend of mine, Meltem Arıkan, wrote a book a couple of years ago, entitled "Yeter, tenimi acıtmayın" (if I recall correctly) which was banned for being "pornographic", and the first edition was collected up. The allegedly "pornographic" bits were ascertained by the court, and the book reissued with these parts cut out. Or blanked out, rather.

The new edition added an account of the trial proceedings and the official trial verdict at the end. This report included, amusingly, all the "pornographic" bits which had been cut out.

Ironically, as the report is an official and publicly available court document, no one can do anything about the re-inclusion of this "offensive" material in the second edition in this way, and it still remains there today.

Nihat said...

Hi James, I have no time for Oktar, either. Nor am I happy about this wholesale ban. However, I am compelled, so to speak, to pull your leg again. Granted many details of this episode are still in the dark, my dissatisfaction is again about the shortage of respect to a Turkish court. I am for holding law-makers responsible for any bad laws. And I am against breaking up an institution as a means of making enforcement of laws more difficult in practice.

Within the last six months or so, I've read a book, written by a lawyer (or two) who had been a close observer and practitioner of the Internet era developments. I can't recall the author's name or the title of the book, but the main theme of the book was about how the Internet, once hailed as the unstoppable tool of free speech and communications without borders, in fact came to pretty much comply with the existing political borders. One important driving force behind this development was electronic commerce, and the inherent need for security, and law and order for such activity to flourish. But another important factor was various governments' understandable desire and will to continue to enforce their laws within their borders. Although this may bring to mind the contribution to the said result, of censorious, powerful governments such as in China, the more telling and striking example of the phenomenon originated from France.

The story (which I guess took place in late 90s) is about Holocaust denial, that being illegal and banned in France, and the same being not banned in the USA, the home of the free and the birthplace of the Internet. Namely, a French citizen, when browsing the Internet while in France, comes across some pages hosted by Yahoo-USA, where the Holocaust is denied; he is offended, and goes to court. He says, this is not allowable in France; how come such material is accessible to the people of France? The court says, yeah, how come? Yahoo-USA is called to answer, and still in the toddler stages of becoming an Internet giant, they are indignant, and they say that they couldn't do anything, the material in question was legal in the USA, they were based in the USA, and the Internet didn't have the notion of location (information was routed in packets from their host servers to whoever requested them, and they wouldn't know where they were headed). The court doesn't budge, and it says, "Wait a minute! Then, how do you deliver location-specific web advertisements?" By that time, such location-detection technologies are really picking up steam, and this pretty much kills Yahoo's defense arguments. Furthermore, Yahoo has assets (physical and human resources) in France which a conviction may jeopardize. So, they comply with the wishes of the court, which is to respect French laws in France, and start implementing technical measures to not deliver offensive material selectively according to destination country.

The legal/technical questions regarding this ban of WordPress (WP) by the Fatih Court are many. For one thing, Oktar's attorneys claim that they have made numerous attempts to contact the WP people about their gripe, and they got no response. No response is not good. Of course, WP people may not feel like responding to what they judge as frivolous grievances, but they have to have an explanation as to why they didn't respond. In particular, I wonder if they were formally called to answer (defend themselves) in court. If they had been, they should have been there, and this shouldn't have come as such a surprise. Looking at the I-am-out-of-words-what-do-you-say posting of the WP founder and chief developer, they probably were in the dark about the case against them in Fatih. Weren't there present in court at least a few Turkish folks (Free Speech Coalition partners or something?) to make a case for the million-strong WP blogs (less a handful of anti-Harun-Yahya ones)?

It is perfectly conceivable that the Oktar camp's ultimate wish is to eradicate the sites and materials in question for good, hence they may have tried to fly under the radar until the moment of strike, which can fairly be characterized as an act of ransom against WP. But I can't imagine it being difficult to convince the Fatih Court or a higher one that such wholesale ban is unwarranted, and should be reversed. Such reversal shouldn't be long in coming especially after the court hears that selective banning of sites is technically possible (by TTNET or WP, or by both in cooperation). Of course, here, I see the defense of the offensive sites and materials as a totally different matter; there may or may not be actual libel in them. My point (or suspicion) is that, it appears, the court didn't hear all sides on the case, and wasn't presented/informed about the range of possible technical measures. And, my wish is that the corrective comes through the same venue: the courtroom. No interference from high-profile politicians, government officials please... If they don't respect the laws they've made and the institutions responsible for enforcing them, who will? Besides, they're facing trying times to make better laws, aren't they?

P.S. Can this WP ban be fairly compared to the YouTube ban? Was there a court order for the YouTube ban? My impression of it is that it was more of an off-the-cuff bureaucratic, ministerial thing... And it was removed as fast as it came.

James said...

Nihat -

Thank you for the French Yahoo example - and you're quite right, you make an important point. The Internet, despite being billed as a revolutionary new medium, has slipped quite easily into the existing legislature of most countries. And libel online, at the end of the day, is still libel.

What I'm objecting to is the sentence - it's very unfair for an entire blogging platform to be taken offline because of one blog. And it is equally irksome for a single company (in this case Turk Telekom) to have the capability to switch off individual websites to an entire country.

Wordpress visitors get the message I copied above; who's to say there are other websites that just display a blank page when Turks visit them? That might be taking the conspiracy a little too far, but when there's a way...

By the way, there was a court order for the YouTube ban too. Visitors got the same message that Wordpress visitors get today.

Nihat said...

James, I am with you in objecting to the sentence: total ban on all WP blogs. Two points...

1) Imo, concerned citizens could and should seek to take this point to an appropriate court, to reverse the total ban order. Aren't there civil watchdog organizations to spearhead this? Like an affiliate or partner of the Free Speech Coalition?

2) Regarding Turk Telekom as the single point of control, my point is, even if there were 20 separate points of such control, each and every one of them would have to obey a given court order. I don't imagine you calling for lawlessness here... How about this then? Such institutions have a public service mission, which is probably underappreciated in Turkey. Imo, this point could be brought to the fore by laws constituting and regulating them, and they could be charged to watch over and protect them. To make a long story short, I mean, Turk Telekom should have been present in such court hearings, at least during the sentencing phase, not as an expert witness but as a stake-holder. For a heavy-handed sentence as this total ban harms their public service mission. It's a shame that they are accountable to higher-ups instead of the public they serve, so they are hands-off about this, and can say, oh well, there is a court order we can't do anything but obey the court.

Nihat said...

James, in my previous comment, I didn't acknowledge your point about the capability of a single entity to switch off access of an entire country to select web sites. You're right, it's irksome. But, I am afraid, such capability exists and it is easy enough for governments to execute filtering at will. I mean, it is so in any event and world over. Internet traffic crosses political boundaries at finitely many gateways (typically, a small number of them), and the ingress/egress equipment are owned and operated by few big fish, which either are governmental entities, or can be coerced relatively easily by governments. The laws and regulations are therefore more important imo. Add to that public awareness, of course... In Turkey, the general understanding of the importance and operation of the Internet may leave a lot to be desired unfortunately. On the bright side, these kinds of incidents should also have some public education angle to them.

On a different note, I heard that a certain smart entrepreneur started making and selling "Benim Cumhurbaskanim Degil (Not my president)" t-shirts. Turkish politics is getting livelier by the day... Let's hope this enterpreneur doesn't end up in court.

Nihat said...

After some search, I found the book I had mentioned above:

Who Controls the Internet?
Illusions of a Borderless World

By Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu
Oxford University Press, USA
February 24, 2006

Anonymous said...

James asked: Wordpress visitors get the message I copied above; who's to say there are other websites that just display a blank page when Turks visit them?

Plenty of sites which are linked in some way to the PKK merely give a "not found" error.