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Turkey Urged to Loosen Rules on Internet Access

Europe's main human rights and security agency told Turkey this week to stop blocking Google's video-sharing website "YouTube" and thousands of other sites banned under its Internet law. Turkey has banned more websites than any other country in Europe, and ranks with countries like Iran and Burma.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, said the law, introduced in 2007, has been expanded to block more than 5,000 sites in the past few years and is severely damaging freedom of expression and information rights.

The minister of transport, Binyali Yildirim, is responsible for Internet policy. He defends the government's actions, saying Google could solve all of this by opening an office in Turkey.

It is the duty of everyone to protect the rights of Turkey, he says. All we are saying is for them to act according to Turkish laws. We are not in a position to bargain with them. They need to accept Turkish laws and have a valid address in Turkey.

Google is reluctant to set up an office in Turkey because analysts say that would mean opening itself up for possible prosecution over its content.

Google's hugely popular "YouTube" site has already been banned for two years in Turkey because of videos officials say have denigrated Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey.

Professor of Media studies Haluk Sahin at Istanbul's Bilgi University says Turkey's lawmakers are simply unable to change with the times.

"It is an extension of a mentality that has very deep roots here. We don't have a liberal tradition in which freedom of speech and expression is considered to be of a fundamental part of civilized life," he said. "As a result law makers today react to developments in ways that are very similar to their fathers and grandfathers used to do, which is to ban."

Many savvy Web users are circumventing the bans by using proxy servers, but the courts hit back this week by banning them. This prompted President Abdullah Gul to intervene .

"Of course there should not be such bans in Turkey," he said. "If there is a need for a new law, then the law should be introduced. They should find a way. All this should be resolved very soon. Turkey shouldn't like to appear as a country which bans websites."

Richard Howitt, spokesman for the European parliament's committee on Turkey, says he is confident Ankara is pushing for reforms.

"The censorship of the Internet probably is likely a result of local prosecutors, rather than government policy. That these complaints that we brought to our parliamentary colleagues were listened to, we got commitments for them to be investigated," he said.

But such optimism is not shared by Professor Sahin. He says despite the growing national and international pressure he doesn't expect legal change anytime soon.

"Nobody seems to move a finger to change them, even when they say see it, they do not take necessary steps to get rid of them. It's anomaly that makes Turkey an embarrassing place," he said.

That pessimism seems well placed with no Internet reforms currently planned. So for some time to come, Turkey seems destined to remain in the company of countries like Burma, North Korea and Iran when it comes to Internet freedom.