Justin Vela in Istanbul -
Turkey's Internet censorship authorities have struck again, blocking access to the "Russian Facebook" - Vkontakte. Whilst some warn of the short term impact on Russian tourism, others worry that Turkish policy is headed in the wrong direction, moving towards the likes of China, and away from the EU.
Russia's state-owned news agency RIA Novosti reported the block on May 22, but Turkish authorities would offer no comment on the reasons behind the May 2 court decision to block Vkontakte. The site has more than 100m users and the ban could dampen the enthusiasm of the 4m or so Russians expected to visit Turkey in 2012, hypothesizes pro-government Turkish daily Sabah.
Somewhat predictably, Vkontakte's Vladislav Tsyplukhin claims that the ban has had little impact on the number of users visiting the website in Turkey. "There was a certain insignificant statistic fluctuation of around several thousand users as we often do not manage to come to agreement with some providers in Islamic countries. But the traffic in Turkey is still at the previous level," he told RIA Novosti.
However, the move is more worrying for the wider political and business climate in Turkey, extending as it does a long history of censorship. Even before the Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923, the Ottoman Empire issued laws that limited printing houses. Levels of censorship has been going through different phases ever since.
After the 1980 military coup, freedom of speech was heavily restricted and aimed to especially to ban topics such as minority rights and the role of the military in politics. More recently, freedom of speech has once more taken a step backwards under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the notoriously thin-skinned Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey currently has more journalists in jail than any other country in the world.
Unsurprisingly then, Ankara clearly has no intention of slackening its grip as it sees social media help stir up revolution throughout its neighbourhood (although Vkontakte's role here is unclear). Given the fact that all Internet traffic in Turkey relies on the infrastructure owned by state-controlled Turk Telecom, centralized control over online content is easy and convenient.
One of the most controversial moves in recent years was a 2007 block on YouTube, blamed on a video insulting the father of the Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. While the ban was lifted in 2010, it left a permanent scar on freedom of expression in Turkey.
Still, many other websites continue to be banned and a range of IP addresses used by Google remain blocked. There are an estimated 8,000 websites officially offline, according to the Wall Street Journal. In 2011, Turkish authorities presented a list of 138 banned keywords, which includes the words "free", "fat" and "pic".
However, without the level of wider government control seen in some other states, the effectiveness of such action looks debatable. Currently there are around 30m Facebook users and 4m Twitter-users in Turkey. The country's young and Internet-savvy population finds it reasonably easy to circumvent the blocks.
"Ridiculous practices without any legal basis are being introduced in Turkey," Yaman Akdeniz, a professor of Internet law at Bilgi University, told EurActiv. "Officials are trying to take Internet users from all ages under control through practices disguised as "protection of minors". By the means of filters and bans, a fundamental [block] of Internet censorship has been established ... Turkey's Internet policies are becoming more and more in compliance with those of China, rather than the EU," he claimed.
It's an irony that the widely-criticized Russian authorities exercise no censorship of the Internet, despite the large role currently being played by the likes of Vkontakte in the opposition movement.
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