An alleged attempt by the Telecommunications Directorate (TİB) to shut down one of Turkey's most popular websites, Ekşi Sözlük (Sour Dictionary) only one day after changes to Turkey's Internet regulations announced by the BTK created deep concern about Internet freedoms in the country.
On Wednesday, the owner of the site Ekşi Sözlük shared a message with the site's users, saying the TİB had sent orders to its service provider to stop hosting the site. Later on in the day, TİB released a statement saying there was no ban on the site, in what was seen as a back step in the face of user outrage. The controversy comes just days after the BTK, the body which TİB is a part of, announced that the new law on Internet safety regulation, approved by Parliament on Feb. 22, 2011, will go into effect on Aug. 22.
The new law introduces three or four filter packages for Internet users, including family and children’s filters. The standard package, which the TİB says is the current form of Internet access for all users, will also be available to users to choose from, but the state’s attempt to introduce filtering mechanisms has caused fears that the Internet would be controlled by the state as is the case in such countries as China, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Early in the morning, Ekşi Sözlük owner Sedat Kapanoğlu said only one day before the order to shut down the site, at a panel at Boğaziçi University on internet censorship, “It will one day be our turn.” He said the TİB’s request to shut down the site would certainly be retracted with “a lame excuse, something like it was an accident.” A few hours later, TİB sent a new notice to the hosting provider, saying there was no need to go ahead with the ban. A TİB official said Ekşi Sözlük had been “accidentally” added on a list of domain names to be shut down. However, Kapanoğlu says many other or less popular websites will not be this lucky.
“The BTK and TİB are completely out of control in the way they are being managed; they are causing incredible damage and are mindlessly creating new absurdities. The most obvious proof of this is how they have been acting so much on automatic pilot that they have shut down more than 60,000 websites in just a few years, that they have the audacity to send out letters to hosting providers telling them, ‘don’t allow these words in your domain names,’ and then, shrink back in the face of reaction,” he pointed out.
TİB last week sent a long list of words, many of them seemingly innocent words such as the name “Haydar,” that are not to be used in domain names to service providers.
In the Ekşi Sözlük case, TİB denied allegations of censorship, but the site’s lawyers shared the notice they say TİB sent to their service provider with the public. The notice ordered the provider to stop providing hosting services to the domain name sourtimes.org and eksisozluk.org, the domain names used by Ekşi Sözlük. Lawyers for the site said they were prepared to launch legal action against TİB. In the wake of these developments, TİB retracted the decision to shut down Ekşi Sözlük, sending a new notice to the hosting service provider.
Başak Purut, a lawyer for the website, said TİB’s initial order sent to the provider was not based on a court decision or any other legal bases, saying it was an illegitimate and arbitrary application of the current regulations. He said they could possibly move the site to a hosting service based abroad. Purut said TİB sent the new notices retracting the decision to various service providers at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday. Sources say not only Ekşi Sözlük, but other dictionaries with user-created content, such as uludagsozluk and ihlsozluk, were also under threat of being shut down by TİB.
In related developments, another dictionary site, incisozluk, announced on Thursday that it was going to appeal the new BTK regulation. It said it was ready to take it up to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) if it fails to find a legal remedy here at home.
Although nominally they are called dictionaries, these sites, where contributions can only be made by members of the site – which are accepted periodically – serve as vibrant public discussion forums. The phenomenon is uniquely Turkish, with no websites using similar content existing in the world elsewhere. Contributors can say anything they want – their opinions or stories or comments on recent developments – as long as they stick to a dictionary format as they write their entries.
BTK head Tayfun Acarer commented on the other source of concern, the new filter regulations, denying there was a hint of censorship in the new filtering mechanism. He also said that stories in the press suggesting that those who circumvent the main filters will be punished were untrue.
He called a press conference on Thursday morning, saying any user who has chosen one of the filtering packages will easily be able to revert back to the regular package, any time he or she wants. He said there will be three packages under the secure internet profile: the children’s package, family package and the domestic package. He said these options in no way replaced the standard profile, which is what all users currently have. He said the new regulation was in favor of consumers.
However, Internet experts and experienced users say any law that has the purpose of “protecting the consumer” proves to be a form of censorship.
Yaman Akdeniz, an associate professor at Bilgi University law school said the writing in the new legislation indicated that even if a subscriber chose the standard package profile, if that user visits a website blacklisted in the BTK database, the visit will be recorded under the user’s profile. But Acarer said during the press conference this was not going to happen.
Ümit Boyner, head of the Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen’s Association (TÜSİAD), said on Thursday that the legal infrastructure in Turkey lagged behind the speed of the Internet. “We are all concerned over Internet bans. The criteria and the legal process in this field should be reviewed,” she tweeted.
Serhat Özeren, head of the Internet Council, said he wasn’t against filtering mechanisms. “I certainly don’t approve of the applications in Iran and China. But child pornography as per the UN is listed as one the gravest crimes and we also need to fight this.”
Serdar Kuzuloğlu, an Internet and IT reporter for the Radikal daily, said, “To put this in plain Turkish, we will be behind censorship software just like in China. We will not have the chance to stay out of it, and it will not be possible to access sites banned by TİB,” he said, noting most users would be available to circumvent the filters through virtual private networks (VPN). “It is useful to remind users of the last chance we will have: the VPN,” he said.