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'Ekşi-users' raid sour web freedom

ISTANBUL- Hürriyet Daily News | 6/26/2011 12:00:00 AM | IŞIL EĞRİKAVRUK

A discussion topic last week on the prophet Muhammad caused some tension among the writers of the Ekşi Sözlük; according to reports, somebody filed a complaint to the police accusing some writers of insulting the Prophet.

Turkey’s Ekşi Sözlük (“Sour Dictionary”) has been one of the country’s favorite web repositories of frequently witty, occasionally irreverent user-generated knowledge for the past 12 years. But the country’s largest collaborative discussion platform and hypertext dictionary made headlines last week when 50 of its members were taken in by the police and charged with insulting religion.

“The police found my IP address and I was suddenly taken in from my home. I was charged for my comments on religion,” said one of the writers who wanted to remain anonymous.

A discussion topic last week on the prophet Muhammad caused some tension among the writers of the Ekşi Sözlük; according to reports, somebody filed a complaint to the police accusing some writers of insulting the Prophet.

“Everyone on the site has a nickname and we all write anonymously. Therefore, I might have written casually but I didn’t write anything insulting,” said the anonymous source.

The detention sparked varied reactions among the website’s writers and administrators. While some criticized the site “admins” for giving the police the users’ IP addresses, site officials said not doing so would have been against the law.

“Some of the writers are furious and have accused us of giving the police their IP address,” Ekşi Sözlük’s founder and owner, Sedat Kapanoğlu, told the Hürriyet Daily News this week. “Yet, according to the laws, if we don’t give their IP addresses, it is a crime.”

“Our writers write their opinions on the web site anonymously, but by taking them in, the police exposed their identity,” the website’s lawyer Başak Purut told the Daily News.

Witch hunt

This is not the first time that Ekşi Sözlük writers have been taken in by the police – Kapanoğlu said he has to testify at least four times a year. But, according to Yaman Akdeniz, a professor who specializes in Internet law, more stringent legal measures must take place before people are taken from their homes on such charges.

“This could have been done through a notice from the police. The strange thing here is that the police come and take people from their homes as if they are guilty. There needs to be a court decision to take people in like that,” Akdeniz told the Daily News.

But such a process is already commonplace, says lawyer Gökhan Ahi who runs Bilişim Hukuk, an online journal of Cyber Law.

“Whenever there is a complaint, the prosecutors have to investigate it and then work with the police,” Ahi told the Daily News. “Yet we might question whether we need the same procedure for every case.”

Akdeniz said the nature of the procedures created fear among the people.

“We are talking about a crime realized by thought or writing, and this is a right of freedom,” Akdeniz said. “There are no guns here. Therefore, they should have been more cautious in interfering with people’s private lives. The current procedures only make people more scared.

“It is like a witch hunt,” he added.

What constitutes a Web Crime?

Since the 2007 passage of article 5651, Turkish law has legally distinguished Internet regulations from those imposed on other media. The law classifies eight violations which can prompt the closing of a website: prostitution, child pornography, gambling, obscenity, promoting suicide, facilitating drug abuse, provision of unapproved substances for health care, and insulting Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, modern Turkey’s founder.

Besides these categories, anyone who thinks that a web site is “suspicious” can call the police. The owner may then be taken in, or the police may confiscate their computer until the case is resolved.

Such complaints do not always involve the guilty. “I was taken in by the police just because a teenage guy thought I had blocked his site,” said another Ekşi Sözlük writer, who identifies himself as “Incredible.” “I found his number, called him and he withdrew his complaint. Still, the police kept my laptop for months because it was then a public case.”

Currently there are about 1 million banned websites in Turkey. Among the previously blocked and re-opened sites are YouTube, Google Groups, WordPress, and Dailymotion.

“According to Turkish Law, if a person disrupts the public peace, then it constitutes a crime,” said Purut. “In the Ekşi Sözlük case, there was nothing like that.”

Still, the case may affect the behavior of Ekşi Sözlük’s contributors. “Some people have quit writing for Ekşi Sözlük because they don’t want their names in the police files,” Kapanoğlu said. “We won’t apply any censorship but we will try and be more cautious for what may happen again.”

A success story

Begun as a small community in 1999, Ekşi Sözlük (www.eksisozluk.com) has gained substantial popularity, hosting 34,000 registered and anonymous writers who aim to present their material wittily and creatively. The dictionary also prizes entertainment over accuracy.

Topics covered in the dictionary range from sex to politics to specific people, from the mundane (why mosquitoes never get full) to the profound and personal (what it means to be a black Turk). The mix of user-generated content attracts 8 million hits a month.

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