Already under fire by rights groups for restricting Internet access for its citizens, Turkey’s government has opened itself to more criticism by saying YouTube owes Ankara millions of dollars in taxes – even though the website is banned in the country.
“Although the company is not a registered taxpayer, the Finance Ministry has calculated it owes taxes worth 30 Million Lira,” or $18.7 million, Turkey’s Transportation Minister Binali Yildirim, whose portfolio includes telecommunications and the Internet, told reporters earlier this week.
Direct access to YouTube has been blocked in Turkey for two years, following a legal complaint against a video that a Turkish court said insulted the country’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Restrictions have become even more severe in recent days after government regulators blocked some IP addresses belonging to YouTube’s owner Google, making it harder for Turks to access services like Google Analytics, Google AdWords and Google Docs.
Critics say Turkey’s Internet law makes it much too easy for authorities and the judiciary to block websites. The country’s prosecutors and judges have a tradition of putting what they see as the need to protect the state against unfair or dangerous attacks over the protection of individual rights.
Under the law, courts in Turkey can immediately and without a hearing close down access to a website as a preventive measure if the website or parts of its contents are deemed to cause offense. To get access re-established, the owner of the website or a Turkish citizen who argues that the ban causes him harm can apply to the judiciary.
According to one count, 3,700 websites are currently banned by Turkish courts, including several sites connected to the Kurdish rebel group PKK, which has been fighting against Ankara since 1984, but also non-political sites like the one of Richard Dawkins, the prominent British biologist and bestselling author. His site was blocked after a complaint by a Turkish author campaigning against the theory of evolution promoted by Dawkins. Even though the website is banned, Dawkins’ books are freely available in Turkish translation.
Internet censorship has become a big issue in Turkey, a Western style democracy with a predominantly Muslim population that wants to become a member of the European Union. Free speech advocates and rights groups have protested against the legal restrictions and are calling for a review of the Internet law.
“It is time the Turkish authorities demonstrated their commitment to free expression by putting an end to the censorship that affects thousands of websites in Turkey and by overhauling Law 5651 on the Internet,” Reporters Without Borders, a group campaigning for press freedom, said in a statement. “The censorship of YouTube in particular seems to be an archaic form of control,” the organisation said.
President Abdullah Gul, aware of the embarrassing situation for Turkey, has also demanded that the ban be lifted. “I do not want to see Turkey among those countries in the world that ban YouTube,” he has said.
Many Turks have no intention of waiting until the legal problems sort themselves out. Millions of Internet users in the country have become experts in circumventing access restrictions by proxy sites and other means. According to Alexa, YouTube is the fifth most popular websites in Turkey, despite being banned.
Even prominent politicians freely admit that they use YouTube. When Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized the opposition over the controversial issue of the Islamic headscarf in late 2008, he told reporters they should go on YouTube to see for themselves what he meant. Stunned, journalists reminded him that access to the site was blocked, but Erdogan was unfazed. “I can get in,” he replied. “You can get in as well.”
As a consequence of YouTube’s popularity despite the ban, the video portal has been attracting advertisement from Turkish companies, a development that triggered the tax probe that Transportation Minister Yildirim was referring to.
The minister was speaking after the government agency overseeing the Internet in Turkey blocked additional IP addresses last week in a move that expanded restrictions against YouTube to some services of its mother company Google.
Yildirim said Google had transferred some IP addresses, which used to belong to YouTube, to parts of Google itself, resulting in access difficulties. The minister said the transfer was a publicity stunt by Google to draw attention to the YouTube ban and accused the company of trying to “manipulate the public”. He called on YouTube to open an office in Turkey and fight the ban in Turkish courts.
Turkish courts will indeed deal with the issue of Internet censorship soon. The Association of Internet Technologies, a platform for Internet companies, said it had asked a court in Ankara to cancel the latest blockages of IP addresses because they were not covered by the initial decision to ban YouTube. Two university professors also applied to the courts.