Status: Partly Free
Obstacles to Access: 11 (0–25)
Limits on Content: 13 (0–35)
Violations of User Rights: 16 (0–40)
Total Score: 40 (0–100)
Internet and mobile-telephone use in Turkey has grown significantly in recent years, though access remains a challenge in some parts of the country, particularly the southeast. The government adopted a hands-off approach to regulation of the internet until 2001, but it has since taken steps to limit access to certain information and blocked hundreds of websites, including some carrying political content. A related and significant threat to online freedom has been the repeated blocking of advanced web applications, particularly video-sharing sites like YouTube. Nevertheless, the Turkish blogosphere is vibrant and diverse. Bloggers have critiqued even sensitive government policies and sought to raise public awareness about censorship and surveillance practices, yielding at least one parliamentary inquiry into the latter.
Internet use in Turkey became popular in the mid-1990s with the introduction of home dial-up connection services. Since then, the number of dial up users—and since 2006 the number of ADSL users—has grown considerably. The government in February 2003 launched the E-Transformation Turkey Project, which aims to ensure the transition to an information society.
Obstacles to Access
Despite an increasing penetration rate in the last few years, obstacles to internet access remain. According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), Turkey had approximately 26.5 million internet users as of March 2008, for a 36.9 percent penetration rate.1 In 2008, the total number of mobile-phone subscribers reached 63.6 million, for a penetration rate of 90 percent. There were an estimated 3.2 million broadband connections as of September 2007. Although many people access the internet from workplaces, universities, and internet cafes, poor infrastructure—including limited telecommunication services and even lack of electricity in certain areas, especially in the eastern and southeastern regions—has a detrimental effect on citizens’ ability to connect, particularly from home. High prices, most notably for broadband, and a lack of technical literacy, especially among older Turks, are also significant factors. According to a 2006 State Planning Organization Report,2 the problem of developing technical competency is greater than the challenges related to cost, which has been decreasing in recent years.3
The population generally enjoys widespread access to internet technology, but the government routinely blocks advanced web applications. Incidents of access restrictions on video-sharing sites such as YouTube, Kliptube, and Dailymotion, as well applications such as Wordpress, Blogspot, Google groups, and the photo-sharing website Slide have become regular occurrences, particularly in 2008. In the case of YouTube alone, access was blocked 11 times during the year, and the last block was still in force at year’s end. In most instances, these large-scale shut downs have been blunt efforts to halt the circulation of specific content that is deemed undesirable by the government.
There are 97 internet-service providers (ISPs) in Turkey, but the majority act as resellers for the largest, Turk Telekom, which provides more than 95 percent of the broadband access in the country. The company, which was partially privatized in 2005, still acts as a dominant monopoly in the ISP sector. In addition, liberalization of local telephony is still pending, and the delay undermines competition in the fixed-line and broadband markets. ISPs are required by law to submit an application for an “activity certificate” to a government regulatory body called the Telecommunications Communication Presidency (TIB) before they can offer services. Internet cafes are also subject to regulation and registration. They can only operate after receiving an activity certificate from a local authority representing the central administration. Those that operate without permission may face administrative fines of 3,000 to 15,000 lira ($1,700 to $8,700). Mobile-phone service providers are subject to licensing through a regulatory authority, and a licensing fee set by the Council of Ministers. The Information and Communication Technologies Authority (formerly known as the Telecommunications Authority) and the TIB, which it oversees, act as the regulators for all of these technologies and are well staffed and self-financed.4 However, the fact that board members are government appointees is a potential threat to the authority’s independence, and its decision-making process is not transparent. Nonetheless, there have been no reported instances of activity certificates being denied.
Limits on Content
Government censorship of the internet continues to be relatively common and has increased in the recent past, sometimes targeting political content. The procedures surrounding decisions to block websites, whether by the courts or the TIB, remain nontransparent, creating significant challenges for those seeking to appeal. In May 2007, the government enacted Law No. 5651, entitled “Regulation of Publications on the Internet and Suppression of Crimes Committed by Means of Such Publication.”5 This law established the responsibilities of content providers, hosting companies, mass-use providers, and ISPs. Its most important provision allows the blocking of websites containing certain types of content, including material that shows or promotes sexual exploitation and abuse of children, obscenity, prostitution, and gambling. Also targeted for blocking are websites deemed to involve crimes committed against Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey’s founding father. Domestically hosted websites with proscribed content can be taken down, and those based abroad can be blocked and filtered through ISPs. The result has been the blocking of at least 1,310 websites, according to the TIB as of December 1, 2008. Although the available records are limited, the majority of blocks appear to have been on objectively harmful content, but at least 50, and possibly many more, were related to alleged crimes against Ataturk. Some sites are blocked by domain name system (DNS), while others are blocked by both domain name and internet protocol addresses.
The procedure for censoring information under Law No. 5651 lacks transparency and is often done by administrative fiat, or by court orders in other cases. Within the judiciary, blocking orders can be issued by a judge during preliminary investigations as well as during trial. Censorship is also overseen by the TIB, which was established in August 2005 and has been fully functional since July 2006. Under Law No. 5651, the TIB’s mandate includes monitoring internet content and executing blocking orders issued by judges and public prosecutors. Moreover, it has been granted its own authority to issue administrative blocking orders for certain content. According to TIB statistics, the courts are responsible for 21 percent of blocked websites, while 79 percent are blocked administratively by the TIB. In some cases, the TIB has successfully asked content and hosting providers to remove offending items from their servers, allowing it to avoid issuing a blocking order that would affect an entire website.
Although Law No. 5651 was designed to protect children from illegal and harmful internet content, its broad application to date has had the effect of restricting adults’ access to legal content. In some instances, the courts have blocked websites for political content using laws other than Law No. 5651. For example, Indymedia Istanbul, an independent news outlet that has been active in Turkey since January 2003,6 had access to its website blocked by a court order in March 2008.7 The decision was based on Article 301 of the criminal code, which involves insults against “Turkishness.”8 Certain leftist and pro-Kurdish news websites are blocked more consistently, with the latter targeted for containing content that is deemed to favor the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rebel group or its use of terrorist violence.9
The reasoning behind court decisions is not provided in blocking notices, and the relevant rulings are not easily accessible in Turkey. As a result, it is often difficult for site owners to determine why their site has been blocked and which court issued the order, rendering any form of appeal essentially impossible.
Two groups, the All Internet Association (TID) and the Turkish Informatics Association (TBD), have brought cases to the Council of State in an effort to annul all the secondary regulations drawn up on the basis of Law No. 5651 as unconstitutional. The TID has particularly faulted the TIB’s authority to issue administrative blocking orders without judicial involvement. The cases were still pending at the end of 2008.
Despite the large number of sites blocked, circumvention techniques and technologies are widely available, enabling even inexperienced users to avoid filters and blocks. Each time a new order is issued and a popular website is blocked, a large number of articles are published to instruct users on how to access the banned websites. This phenomenon is reflected by the fact that YouTube was still the 16th-most-accessed site in Turkey almost three months after the latest blocking order was issued.10
Turkish users are increasingly relying on internet-based publications as a primary source of news. Advanced applications like Facebook, YouTube (despite being banned since May 2008), Twitter, MySpace, and blogging services such as Blogger, Blogspot, and Wordpress are extremely popular in Turkey. In August 2008, in a show of solidarity and protest over the government’s repeated blocking of various websites and applications, nearly 200 Turkish blogs temporarily shut themselves down and posted a message that read “This site is blocked by [the author’s] own choice.” Instructions were provided to bloggers on how to convert their sites to “blocked” pages, and bloggers who participated said the campaign was designed “to show Turkish Web surfers what the Internet would look like if censorship continues unabated.”11 There is a wide range of blogs and websites on which citizens question and critique Turkish politics and leaders, including on issues that are generally deemed to be politically sensitive. For example, a website called Ozurdiliyoruz.com was recently set up to offer an apology for “the insensitivity showed to and the denial of the Great Catastrophe that the Ottoman Armenians were subjected to in 1915.” There are currently more than 28,000 signatories on the apology letter. The majority of civil society groups in Turkey maintain an online presence, and social-networking sites are used for a variety of functions, including political campaigns. Thus far, however, mobile phones and SMS (text messaging) technology do not seem to play a large role in social or political mobilization.
Violations of Users’ Rights
The constitution includes broad protections for freedom of expression, stating that “everyone has the right to express and disseminate his thought and opinion by speech, in writing or in pictures or through other media, individually or collectively.” Turkish law and court judgments are also subject to the European Convention on Human Rights and bound by the decisions of the European Court on Human Rights. While many hundreds of websites have been blocked under Law No. 5651, there have been no prosecutions of individuals for publication of the proscribed content. There are no laws specifically criminalizing online expression or activities like posting or downloading information, sending e-mail, or transmitting text messages. However, many provisions of the criminal code and other laws, such as the Anti-Terrorism Law, are applicable to both online and offline activity. These include the ban on encouragement or assistance of crimes against Ataturk. Furthermore, Article 301 allows prison terms of six months to three years for “the denigration of Turkishness.” It has been used against journalists who assert that genocide was committed against the Armenians in 1915, discuss the division of Cyprus, or write critically about the security forces. Book publishers, translators, and intellectuals have also faced prosecution for insulting Turkish identity.12 Thus far there have been no prosecutions under Article 301 for online material, but the possibility of such charges significantly contributes to self-censorship.
The constitution states that “secrecy of communication is fundamental,” and users are allowed to post anonymously online. The constitution also specifies that only the judiciary can authorize interference with the freedom of communication and the right to privacy. For example, judicial permission is required for technical surveillance under the Penal Procedural Law. However, the anonymous purchase of mobile phones is not allowed, and would-be buyers need to provide official identification. The use of encryption is currently not prohibited or regulated by law, and Turkey has no data protection law.
Despite the constitutional protections, the right to privacy and private communications remains rather problematic. In practice, most forms of telecommunication have been tapped and intercepted.13 During 2008, several surveillance scandals received widespread media attention, and it has been alleged that all communications are subject to interception by various law enforcement and security agencies, including the Gendarmerie (military police). Some have reported that up to 50,000 phones—both mobile and land-line—are legally tapped daily in Turkey, and 150,000 to 200,000 interception requests are made each year.
Such actions have been challenged in court on at least one occasion. In June 2008, the Ankara 11th High Criminal Court initially granted both the Gendarmerie and the National Intelligence Agency (MIT) the authority to view countrywide data traffic retained by telecommunication-service providers. The TIB lodged two complaints with the court and asked the Ministry of Justice to clarify the permission granted to the Gendarmerie. Subsequently, the Supreme Court of Appeals overruled the Ankara court’s decision and stated that “no institution can be granted such authority across the entire country, viewing all people living in the Republic of Turkey as suspects, regardless of what the purpose of such access might be.”14 Nonetheless, similar powers to access and monitor data traffic have been granted to the MIT as well as the National Police Department. Faced with criticism over these powers, the parliament in 2008 launched a major inquiry into illegal surveillance and interception of communications, and the inquiry will continue into 2009.
ISPs are required to take down, to the extent that it is technically possible, any illegal content published by their customers once it has been identified by the TIB or in a court order. Providers are not required to monitor the information that goes through their networks, nor do they have a general obligation to seek out illegal activity. In terms of data retention, access providers are required to retain all communications (traffic) data for a period of one year from the date of the communication, while maintaining its accuracy, security, and integrity. Administrative fines of 10,000 to 50,000 lira ($5,800 to $30,000) can be imposed on access providers if they fail to comply, but to date no ISP or other provider has been prosecuted.
Internet cafe operators are required under Law No. 5651 to deploy and use filtering tools to block access to content that is deemed illegal. Under related regulations, they are also required to record daily the accuracy, security, and integrity of retained data using software provided by the TIB, and to keep this information for one year.15 All mass-use providers are required to use one of the filtering programs approved by the TIB, which are published on the TIB’s website. However, criteria for the approval are not known or publicly available. Nor is it clear whether the approved programs filter websites other than the ones blocked by the courts and the TIB. Since the procedure is not transparent and remains open to abuse, the TIB’s filter approval system could lead to systematic censorship of certain websites without the necessary judicial or TIB orders.
There were no reports of extralegal intimidation or harassment of bloggers or others for their online activities, though some internet content was believed to have contributed to the murder of print journalist Hrant Dink in January 2007. Dink was a prominent member of the Armenian minority in Turkey, and editor in chief of the bilingual Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos. Prior to his assassination, he had received several death threats via e-mail. It was reported that his killer was influenced by the writings on certain racist websites and online forums. Such sites are not covered by Law No. 5651 and have not been subject to blocking or regulation. While Dink’s murder may have been fueled by anti-Armenian sentiment among Turks online, the first major reaction to his death came from Turkish bloggers, who expressed their sadness and regret at the loss of a fellow Turkish journalist in a senseless act of violence.16
Physical violence is not a major threat to Turkish users, but technical attacks are becoming increasingly common. In July 2008, the websites of a free speech organization (www.antenna-tr.org and www.orrtakpayda.org) run by activist and musician Sanar Yurdatapan were attacked by a group of Turkish nationalist hackers. An investigation was launched, but it did not lead to arrests or prosecutions. Continual attacks by hackers are thought to be partly responsible for the apparent decline of the Kurdish blogosphere. According to GlobalVoices, the site IraqiKurdistan has been hacked by a character who names himself the ‘dangerous ghost ne mutlu turkum diyene’ and it is believed that the site From Holland to Kurdistan switched its blog to invited readers only because of similar attacks.17 Domain hijacking also remains popular with Turkish hackers, who allegedly targeted the European Commission18 and PKK websites, among others, during 2008.19 They are known to engage in minor cyberwars with their Greek counterparts as well.
2 T.R. Prime Ministry, State Planning Organization, Information Society Strategy (2006-2010), July 2006.
5 Law No 5651 was published on the Turkish Official Gazette on 23.05.2007, No. 26030.
6 http://istanbul.indymedia.org/features/english/?l=en, accessed December 2008
7 Canada NewsWire, “Turkey - Another website blocked in latest of measures that threaten Web 2.0,” 01 April, 2008. See further Önderoğlu, E., “Access to Another Website Banned,” Bia News Centre, 27 March, 2008, at http://www.bianet.org/bianet/kategori/english/105906/access-to-another-website-banned, accessed December 2008
8 Article 301 (Insulting Turkishness, the Republic, the organs and institutions of the State).
10 According to the alexa.com website on 18 August, 2008
11 Global Voices Online, “Bloggers Banning Themselves,” August 18, 2008 http://globalvoicesonline.org/2008/08/18/turkey-is-typingbloggers-banning-themselves/, accessed March 20, 2009
12 Freedom of the Press, Turkey (2008), http://www.freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=251&year=2008, accessed March 30, 2009
13 For a history of interception of communications see Bildirici, Faruk, Gizli Kulaklar Ulkesi (The Country of Hidden Ears), Istanbul: Iletisim, 1999. See further Coskun, Enis, Kuresel Gozalti: Elektronik Gizli Dinleme ve Goruntuleme, Ankara: Umit Yayincilik, 2000
14 Zaman, “Supreme Court of Appeals overrules gendarmerie call detail access,” 06 June, 2008
15 See Law No. 5651, article 10 (4)(ç) and (e)
16 Global Voices Online, “Caucasus Blog Review,” December 31, 2007, http://globalvoicesonline.org/2007/12/31/caucasus-2007-blog-review/, accessed March 20, 2009, and “Notes From the Turkish Blogosphere,” January 20, 2007,
http://oneworld.blogsome.com/2007/01/20/notes-from-the-turkish-blogosphere-on-hrant-dinks-murder/, accessed March 20, 2009
17 Global Voices Online, “The State of Kurdish Activism,” July 10, 2007, http://globalvoicesonline.org/2007/07/10/kurdistance-the-state-of-kurdish-activism/, accessed March 20, 2009
18 See Turkish Hacker Group Strikes Again, This Time Victims are ICANN and IANA, 27 June, 2008, at http://www.circleid.com/posts/86272_turkish_hackers_strike_again_icann_iana/, accessed December 2008