November 23, 2011 | By Jillian York

This Week in Internet Censorship: Opaque Censorship in Turkey, Russia, and Britain

Turkey Launches Internet Filter

On Tuesday, Turkey instituted a voluntary filtering system blocks "objectionable content" when enabled.  Users will now have to sign up for the free system with their ISP and select from two levels of filtering: child and family.  The original intention for this tiered system was for it be mandatory, but authorities backtracked after widespread protests against the scheme. 

Though the filtering is voluntary, Turkish experts still have concerns about various elements of the scheme.  For one thing, oversight of the scheme is obscure, conducted by a newly formed committee called the "Child and Family Profiles Criteria Working Committee."  In a recent interview, law professor Yaman Akdeniz of Bilgi University in Istanbul expressed concern, stating, "...the formation of this committee already raised concerns as it does not look independent nor impartial. Moreover, concerns remain that moral values will be imposed by the state authorities."

In addition to adult content, the filter will block 130 search terms, as well as "separatist" content from the PKK and Kurdish rights groups.  Says Akdeniz, "I also believe that the Turkish authorities are not only trying to protect children but also adults from the 'so called harmful content.'"

EFF has expressed concerns in the past about similar schemes, such as the one proposed in Australia. Filtering is costly, easy to circumvent, and is too often overbroad, blocking content that would otherwise be deemed innocuous.

State censorship in any form threatens the health of democracy. Unfortunately, states commonly use creative rationales to legitimize it.  Such is this case, using the guise of being sensitive to family and children's interests while the state quietly includes politically relevant terms in their list of blocked terms. In light of Turkey's history as a pervasive censor of the Internet, we have grave concerns about the trajectory of this new filtering scheme and will be following its developments closely.

UK Temporarily Blocks Fileserve

Just as in Turkey, the UK's Internet filtering system is overseen by a dubious secretive organization known as the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF). One of the organization's responsibilities include managing the UK's block list of child sexual abuse sites and images.  All of Britain's ISPs subscribe to this list.

In 2008, the IWF famously blocked the Wikipedia page of German band Scorpions because it contained the controversial cover image of the band's 1976 album Virgin Killer; the ban--later reversed--resulted in the inability of British Wikipedians to edit pages.  In the wake of the Wikipedia debacle, the IWF considered blocking Amazon.com for hosting the same image, resulting in Amazon's decision to use a different version of the album cover on its site.  In 2009, the IWF briefly blocked access to the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine.

This past weekend, the IWF blocked users of file-sharing site Fileserve from accessing their personal files and downloading files uploaded by others, allegedly because a specific link was thought to contain child sexual abuse imagery.  Paid subscribers of Fileserve were also blocked from downloading content from the site.  This is yet another case in which a state agency legitimizes censorship in the name of protecting its citizens.  Even if the initial justification for such policies may seem fair, it is a dangerous slippery slope into the formation of more state mechanisms that stifle free speech.

Censorship Becomes Pervasive on Russian Forums

According to a report from Global Voices, censorship is taking various forms on Russian web fora in the run-up to parliamentary elections.  Popular site Kostroma Jedis Forum (jedi.net.ru) had its server confiscated by police on November 16 on the grounds of a libel investigation, while two sites--Miass city forum and Chusovskoy Rabochiy--removed all comments, the former shutting down until election day. A fourth site, mcn.nnov.ru, declared itself a "politics-free zone."

Author Alexey Sidorenko writes:

These cases are only the few that received attention. It is unknown, however, to what degree regional discussion boards were either forced to switch to the ‘apolitical mode,' or decided to do it as an act of self-censorship.

Being more obscure and mostly anonymous, regional forums are more vulnerable to pressure from the authorities compared to larger media outlets or popular bloggers. However, they represent the voices that are usually heard the least.

Authorities' use of power to stifle civic engagement on forums is egregious to say the least.  The EFF condemns the use of such tactics.


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