Controversial Turkish Internet Censorship Program Targets Evolution Sites

Evolution, apparently, ranks alongside pornography and terrorism as topics that the Turkish government's controversial new Internet filtering scheme keeps out of the hands of children. Internet users in Turkey were surprised yesterday to find that several educational Web sites about evolution, such as this one, were inaccessible. After Hürriyet Daily News reported the censorship yesterday, the government reversed the block today. But science advocates and Internet freedom activists say it's a worrying sign of the government's attitude toward evolution.

Turkey's filtering program, which was launched at the end of November, has drawn broad criticism because it filters sites about political opposition to the government and blocks sites that go against "Turkish values." Internet users have the option to select either a "family" or "child" level of access; the Turkish Information Technologies and Communication Authority sets the content of each of these options.

The blockade of evolution sites came to light when one block was accidentally discovered and reported to the media, Aykut Kence, a biologist at Middle East Technical University in Ankara, told ScienceInsider in an e-mail. The fact that the sites weren't blocked to every user, only children, "is important in that it shows the mentality of people censoring the websites," Kence wrote. "Apparently they thought that this was deleterious for kids."

Kence noted, however, that antievolution Web sites developed by "Harun Yahya" remained accessible "without any restriction." Yahya is the pen name of Adnan Oktar, a religious activist who writes creationist textbooks for children and sends them to schools across Europe. In 2008, Oktar successfully lobbied a Turkish court to order a block on richarddawkins.net on the grounds that Dawkins's criticism of his tactics was libelous. The court overturned the order in July of this year and the block was lifted, but Oktar is appealing the ruling.

"There is lack of transparency in terms of what is filtered out or the criteria for filtering," Yaman Akdeniz, a lawyer at Istanbul Bilgi University whose team represented Dawkins in the defamation case, wrote in an e-mail. In this case, "I am afraid it is a systematic censorship approach rather than innocent keyword based filtering of certain words." The entire Internet censorship program, he says, is currently being challenged by Internet freedom groups in the Council of State, Turkey's highest court.

Kence says it's difficult to know how many other evolution sites are blocked but says the matter is being examined.