Vimeo blocked in Turkey, raising concerns over freedom of expression

January 10, 2014, Friday/ 18:19:00

US-based video-sharing website Vimeo has been blocked in Turkey by a Turkish court, further increasing concerns that an amendment to the law on cybercrimes recently submitted by a deputy from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) may seriously damage freedom of expression on the Internet and social media.

Vimeo, a site where users can upload, share and view videos, was blocked in Turkey starting Jan. 8 upon a ruling by the Criminal Court of Peace.

As per the amendment, which AK Party deputy Zeynep Karahan Uslu introduced in December, the minister of transport, maritime affairs and communications as well as the head of the Telecommunications Directorate (TİB) will be able to block websites without obtaining a court order.

Ali Rıza Keleş, head of the Alternative Informatics Association, strongly believes the amendment goes against the Constitution due to the restrictions it will introduce regarding the freedom of expression.

“This amendment will get annulled by the Constitutional Court. It is in violation of the freedom of expression,” he told Today's Zaman.

The blocking of access to Vimeo, a website that was widely used by Gezi Park protestors to share videos about last summer's nationwide anti-government demonstrations, has come at a time when the amendment to Law No. 5651 on cybercrimes is waiting to be discussed by Parliament.

The amendment, which is included in an omnibus bill from the Ministry of Family and Social Policy, could pave the way for the government to censor the Internet and social media as well as profile Internet users; analysts are anxious.

“The government is making an effort to silence the Internet and social media, just as it did with the media following the [recent] corruption operation,” Emrehan Halıcı, deputy chairman of the Republican People's Party (CHP), said on Thursday.

Keleş also criticized the proposed amendment because it contains no reference to a European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) verdict on a Turkish court's decision to block access to Google Sites. In December 2012, ECtHR said in its verdict on the case of Ahmet Yıldırım versus Turkey: "[The] restriction of Internet access without a strict legal framework regulating the scope of the ban and affording the guarantee of judicial review to prevent possible abuses amounts to a violation of freedom of expression.” That is, “a violation of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.”

The amendment, which has already passed a subcommittee of Parliament's Planning and Budget Committee, also includes a measure allowing the recording of Internet users' browser histories and saving them for up to two years. “In this way, infrastructure for the countrywide profiling of citizens will be put into place,” CHP's Halıcı said at a press conference in Parliament.

The move by the government may be, many fear, part of its efforts to widen encroachment on the private lives of people as well as the monitoring of different mediums where they express their thoughts and dissent -- particularly since the Gezi Park protests that rocked the country for nearly a month.

Following a recent graft probe involving four Cabinet ministers, access to a website belonging to Mehmet Baransu, a Taraf daily columnist known for his criticism of the government, was blocked by TİB. His site was blocked because it was believed he would publish documents about the ongoing corruption investigation, thereby violating the confidentiality of the investigation.

For Baransu, who filed a suit for a stay of execution, the move represents an unlawful action. “Access to my website has been arbitrarily blocked. There is neither a verdict by a court nor by a prosecutor [for it],” Baransu told Today's Zaman. An administrative court in Ankara will hear his case next week, the columnist said, maintaining that the webpage was blocked upon instructions from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to stop Baransu from publishing news stories about the corruption scandal that would disgrace the government.

“I have obtained a document from the prosecutor that makes it clear that he did not give any authorization [to TİB] for such a blockage of my website.”

With the amendment, should Parliament pass it, a total filtering of content on the Internet may well be possible; other than blocking access to certain content on a webpage, access to a webpage may be blocked via domain names or IP addresses or other similar means as well. Noting that the bill allows officials to block IP addresses and web URLs, CHP's Halıcı said, “That [means], the government will be able to easily ban a video that it does not like on YouTube.”

The bill calls for bans introduced by the transportation minister and the TİB chief to be implemented within four hours. Keleş, who criticized the government for paying no attention to proposals submitted to it by nongovernmental organizations regarding the amendment, is also concerned that such an amendment will give the state the position of “big brother” and the ability to monitor every Internet user.

He noted that, according to current law, Internet monitoring is done only via IP addresses while an individual is accessing a certain page. Keleş added: “But thanks to the amendment, they [the government] will also be able to monitor the content of what we access on the Internet [on the Internet]. In this way, people will be easily profiled.”

The extensive use of social media by protesters to communicate with one another during the Gezi Park protests may have pushed the government to seek tougher rules on the Internet. At the time, Erdoğan notably described Twitter as a "nuisance."

 

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