Turkey made over a quarter of the total global demands for online content to be removed in the first half of 2012, a new report on government surveillance of the internet by Google reveals, with Ankara's action representing a huge spike compared with the previous year.
Turkish authorities submitted 501 requests to the US company for content removal between January and June, Google's biannual Transparency Report reveals, a stark contrast to the 45 demands it sent the world's biggest search engine in the first half of 2011. The 2012 action included 148 requests related to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk - the first president of Turkey - the current government, national identity and values. Others included claims related to pornography, hate speech and copyright.
The report has Turkey responsible for a full 28% of all take-down requests in the first six months of the year, with total demands issued to Google Services by governments around the world rising to 1,791 from 1,048 in the last six months of 2011. The 273 requests made by the US was the second highest number, with Germany (247), Brazil (191) and the UK (97) rounding out the top five. Google said the top three reasons cited by governments for content removal are defamation, privacy and security.
By way of contrast to its requests for content take-downs, Ankara made relatively few requests to Google for user data, a total of 112. The US led that category by some distance with its 7,969 demands, more than tripling the 2,319 made by second placed India. The low number of requests concerning identity possibly reflects low internet penetration amongst insurgents in the south-east of Turkey.
Meanwhile, Turkey was one of only three states in the report to see every single one of its user data requests turned down by the company, which has its own criteria for handing over data or taking down content. Hungary's 92 requests failed, as did all 58 of Russia's. Google acted on 32% of the Czech Republic's 44 requests and 21% of Poland's 351, while it passed a full 90% of the US requests and 64% of India's. The report does not disclose how many of the content take down requests it complies with, noting only that Google may choose not to comply.
The US company has been publishing the report twice a year since 2009, and has seen a steady rise in government demands for data and content blocking, it says. In the first ever report it received 12,539 requests overall. The figure for the first half of 2012 stands at 20,939. "This is the sixth time we've released this data, and one trend has become clear: government surveillance is on the rise," Google said in comments accompanying the report.
The report acts as a bellwether for government behaviour around the world, a Google spokeswoman told the BBC. "It reflects laws on the ground. For example in Turkey there are specific laws about defaming public figures whereas in Germany we get requests to remove neo-Nazi content," she said. [I]n Brazil we get a lot of requests to remove content during elections because there is a law banning parodies of candidates. We hope that the report will shed light on how governments interact with online services and how laws are reflected in online behaviour," she added.
Feeling the pressure
Concern over censorship in Turkey has been rising for some time under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its notoriously thin-skinned leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with the country currently hosting more journalists in its jails than any other in the world. All internet traffic in Turkey passes through state-owned Turk Telecom's infrastructure, while 8,000 websites continue to be banned, according to the Wall Street Journal, and a number of IP addresses used by Google remain blocked. In 2011, Turkish authorities presented a list of 138 banned keywords, including words such as "free", "fat" and "pic".
"Ridiculous practices without any legal basis are being introduced in Turkey," said Yaman Akdeniz, a professor of Internet law at Bilgi University, in an interview with EurActiv in May. "Officials are trying to put internet users of 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."
Google owned video-sharing website YouTube announced in October that it is to operate in Turkey under a local domain, a move Ankara said represents a significant victory in a long-running battle. The move, said Transport and Communications Minister Binali Yildirim, will not only make the website liable to pay Turkish taxes, but will also offer the authorities the opportunity to censor content. He added that YouTube had made the move after it had "felt the pressure".
"It will now be in a binding and critical position to implement court decisions and remove any objectionable publications," Yildirim added. YouTube was the subject of one of the most debated bans on the Turkish internet when it was blocked in 2007 on the back of a video judged to insult Ataturk. The ban was only lifted in 2010.