Transparency Report Update and a Closer Look at Turkey

Our latest transparency report is hot off the press, complete with data and details about the intellectual property infringement notices, government takedown demands, and government requests for information we received between July 1 and December 31, 2015.

You can view our updated report here.

Taking a closer look at the numbers, you may notice that we’ve seen quite an increase in government takedown demands since we launched our transparency report, with 156% more demands in 2015 (346) than in 2014 (135). The majority of these demands are from two countries in particular: Russia and Turkey.

Russia is no surprise as we’ve been dealing with their demands for years (you can read more about our process for handling their demands here), but Turkey came out of the woodwork for the first time with 4 demands in 2014, jumping up dramatically with 113 in 2015.

Generally we receive Turkish court orders in two scenarios. In the first, the Telecommunication and Communication Presidency can ban content in the interest of protecting “national security and public order,” preventing crime, and protecting general health… which are open to their interpretation. In the other, when someone’s rights are violated (privacy rights or defamation, for example), Turkish law allows the complaining party to request content removal by obtaining a court order.

As with most censorship laws, the real world consequences reveal the chilling of a significant amount of legitimate, political speech. For example, we’ve received takedown orders covering:

  • A site that criticizes the President of Turkey and his government’s activities relating to a terrorist organization. The President’s recent and past speeches were shared in a way to show that he contradicts himself as the time passes. If that weren’t sufficiently worrisome, Article 299 of Turkish Criminal Code, which governs defaming the President of Turkey, states that anyone who insults the president shall be sentenced from one to four years.
  • A news site’s report on a child sex sting, covering the details of a Turkish man who arranged to meet an underaged girl. A photo from a court hearing and a mug shot of the complaining party, were included in the removal demand.
  • A site that criticized a terrorist organization. We believe this site was wrongfully included with the others that did support the terrorist organization, but that didn’t stop a Turkish court from issuing a takedown demand against it. It’s eerily similar to when copyright takedown bots run amok.

Under our legal guidelines, we require a U.S. court order before proceeding with the removal of content from WordPress.com. To this point, we have refused to take action in response to the takedown demands from Turkey. After we receive notice of an order, Turkish ISPs, who are bound to obey the court orders, move to block the sites named in an order, making it unavailable to all visitors from Turkey without any further explanation.

Overall, compared to the tens of millions of sites that we host, we continue to receive a relatively small number of demands from governments and other national authorities.

For more details, dive into the specific report pages. As always, please drop us a line if you have any suggestions for future reports!

Error 451: Unavailable for Legal Reasons

Internet Service Providers and online platforms like WordPress.com are increasingly facing demands to block access to URLs in different countries. These orders can come as the result of court decisions (in the case of the UK and Turkey), or directly from governmental authorities (in the case of Russia or Georgia) and are usually directed at content that governments find illegal or objectionable.

Before now, there has been no standard error message that is both machine-readable and also explains to visitors the reason that the site is unavailable.

Default messages like the infamous ‘Error 404 – Page not found’ or its close cousin, ‘Error 403 – Forbidden’ strike us as inadequate for situations where sites are unavailable for legal reasons. Enter the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). They have approved a new HTTP error status code: Error 451, named after Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel ‘Fahrenheit 451’. This development comes after 2 years of campaigning by groups such as the Open Rights Group and Article 19.

We are strongly opposed to Internet censorship, and believe that geo-blocking is both inappropriate and an ineffective remedy for controversial speech. The introduction of the new HTTP error code is a welcome one, and we have gladly adopted it on WordPress.com. The error code will be returned to visitors from those countries where we have been forced to block websites for legal reasons, and allow statistics to be gathered on the number of these kind of blocks worldwide more easily.

For more information on the requests we receive from governments, please see our latest Transparency Report.

‘451 unavailable’ header image modified from original logo by the Open Rights Group under CC-BY-SA 4.0 Licence.