Censorship and jurisdiction in Turkey

The Turkish Internet has been crippled in recent weeks due to an unprecedented conflict between the Turkish courts and Google. If you are not familiar with the background to this case, you will find some excellent write-ups in various places (such as this BBC summary).

In short, Turkey passed a law in 2007 that created the criminal type called “Crimes against Atatürk”, this being Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of Turkey. The law allows a court to block websites where there is enough suspicion that a crime has occurred. YouTube being YouTube, apparently there are such videos uploaded to the site, so a court decided to  cut-off all access in Turkey to YouTube. As soon as this happened, a game of cat and mouse began, as the technically-minded elites started trying to circumvent the block. One way of doing this was to use alternative IP addresses for YouTube, so instead of typing a URL, they would type an IP address. When the authorities found out, they blocked these, but those addresses are also used by Google to supply many of their other popular services, such as Google Maps, Analytics, Gmail, Blogger, and others. So the result is that most of Google’s services are unavailable in Turkey because of a handful of videos which may or may not be insulting a long-dead leader, which probably would have been seen by a handful of people in the first place.

Internet censorship of this magnitude makes me unspeakably angry, I just cannot stand regulatory stupidity of this kind. There are so many wrong things about the Google ban that I do not know where to begin. There is the fact that censors believe that they have the power to decide what others should see, and the unspoken paternalistic understanding that they know best. There is the ease with which people will be offended when their flag / guru / dear leader is insulted online, I cannot understand how people take one look at a video on YouTube and decide to be offended to the extent that the entire site must be shut down. There are hundreds of videos on YouTube that I find objectionable, but if I do not like them the back button is quite easy to press. There is also the unspeakably idiotic notion that shutting down a large part of the Internet is in some way a proportional response to a small video available online. The words nut and hammer come to mind. Millions affected by the perceived offence of a few…

But what interests me about the case is not really the censorship angle, as important as it may be. Hidden in the reports is an even more vital legal issue, that of jurisdiction and taxation. It is possible that Turkey is using the censorship excuse to lure Google into its shores so that it will establish an office there and therefore pay taxes. Ankara officials have hinted that the ban will be lifted if Google opens offices in Turkey and starts paying taxes there. Currently, Google has its main European offices in Ireland, with several regional offices in other countries. For jurisdiction purposes, this is important, as opening an office may increase the company’s liability to civil and criminal enforcement. Take the much-publicised Italian criminal trial and you will start to see why Google may want to keep offices open only in a small number of strategic locations.

If I were Google, the last place I would want to open an office is precisely in Turkey, the potential for criminal liability would be too great. So what interest me is that regulators may be using censorship as the lure to attract companies so that they can tax and sue them at will. I know what my choice would be, Google can afford giving up on the Turkish market. Can Turkey afford being seen as the troglodytes of Europe?

Comments 1

  1. Hmmm, same applies to India and Gandhi, Thailand and the king, Pakistan and the Prophet (PBUH)? If I was sovereign and had a law outlawing such videos, I would expect Google to snap to attention and agree to take them down subject to my defamation laws (which is what in effect these are – although applying to the dead in some cases). Expecting a popular service to move onshore is what a lot of banking reform is about, I'm not sure the Internet should be such a special case. That said, the Turkish regulators who have to enforce this law have no doubt that its largely ineffective political flagwaving – but since when did that stop politicos passing stoopid laws.

    Google's response should be to highlight its 'Flag as inappropriate' button on each page to allow reports on this – and the Italian case – and to point out that unlike Facebook, it has such a button on each page! Plus it should cast-iron guarantee that it will take action (i.e. make a judgment) within 24 hours, and have a person in each jurisdiction who knows the local laws and can make that judgment informed by knowledge of the law.

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