It was meant to herald the start of an epic democratic odyssey that would see Turkey easing censorship and free-speech restrictions and result in it joining the European Union.
Instead -- five years after the opening of membership talks -- the country finds itself increasingly stigmatized as an enemy of the Internet after a wave of website bans that has prompted dismayed supporters of its EU aspirations to draw comparisons with Iran and China.
Amid an intensifying spat between Turkish officials and Google, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has accused Turkey of breaching freedom of expression and information rights under legislation that has seen more than 5,000 websites blocked in the past three years.
The country's attitude to the Internet has already come under scrutiny over a ban on YouTube, which has been blocked since 2008 after Greek nationalists posted a video deemed insulting to the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Officials have played down the YouTube ban by pointing out that it remains widely accessible through proxy servers such as VTunnel.
But now the issue has resurfaced after authorities restricted access to other sites owned by the video-sharing network's parent company Google, slowing speeds to a crawl and closing some services down altogether. The move has triggered a legal challenge by an Internet rights group, the Internet Technologies Association, which argued in a court case brought this week that the restrictions illegally discriminated against millions of users.
Turkey's transport minister, Binali Yildirim -- who has responsibility for the Internet -- has justified them by claiming Google owes the government $20 million in unpaid taxes on revenues earned by YouTube. "This site [YouTube] has entered a fight with the Turkish republic and Turkey will never accept it," he said.
But critics insist the row is less about money than free speech. The accusations of unpaid taxes -- which Google denies -- echo a separate controversy involving Turkey's biggest media company, the Dogan Group, which was fined around $3.9 billion last year for alleged tax evasion.
That fine has been condemned by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the U.S. State Department amid suggestions that it was motivated by a desire to silence an organization whose pro-secularist newspapers have been critical of Turkey's governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has roots in political Islam.
Haluk Sahin, professor of media studies and communication at Istanbul's Bilgi University, blames the Internet crackdown on a lack of Turkish tradition for defending free speech and an official failure to understand the "information age."
"The mentality is one that has relied on censorship and on stoppage of messages rather than the free flow of information and dealing with information with counter-information," Sahin said.
"This mentality that has prevailed in our country for a long time makes a comeback from time-to-time in the form of court cases brought against journalists or, in this case, a futile attempt to stop certain Internet services."
The wave of Internet bans has been triggered by law 5651, passed in May 2007 to guard against sites that encouraged suicide and sexually exploited children or promoted drug use, obscenity, prostitution, and gambling. It also provided for banning sites that violated antiterrorism laws or those against insulting Ataturk. The law empowers the state-run Telecommunications Board to block without going to court sites deemed obscene or to be promoting sexual exploitation of children.
An additional article in the Turkish civil code allows individuals to request the blocking of sites that are "infringing on their personal rights." This provision was used in 2008 by a court in Istanbul to block access to the website of the biologist and atheist, Richard Dawkins, after Adnan Oktar, a pro-creationist Islamist author, argued that its contents were defamatory, blasphemous, and insulting to religion.
Richard Howitt, a British Euro-MP and spokesman for the European Parliament's committee on Turkey, is calling for "urgent action" to remedy a situation that he says prioritizes blocking "political views and sentiments" rather than stamping out pornographic material.
"There's a huge lack of common sense and natural justice being applied in all this. As someone who loves likes and loves Turkey and who wants to see Turkey as a member of the European Union, it does discredit Turkey that access to the Internet, which is known internationally to be a problem in countries like Iran and China, should be a problem in a country which should be in a very different place," Howitt said.
European calls for an end to restrictions have met with a lack of "political will" from Turkish officials, Howitt complains, and exhausted the patience of supporters of Turkey's EU membership bid.
"At some point, it's right for Europe and the international community to say, come on, you've got to adhere to international standards here and in terms of trying to cut off the Internet, it's time for Europe to talk tough," Howitt said.
EU dream floundering
Yet with Turkish-EU negotiations floundering in the face of Franco-German opposition to Turkey's membership, Europe's leverage over Ankara may be drastically reduced. And according to Sahin, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government may no longer consider joining the EU the enticing goal it once was, having succeeded in reducing the power of the pro-secularist armed forces and judiciary.
"I think the AKP was pro-Europe in the first four or five years of its rule primarily because of domestic political concerns, to gain room to maneuver against what they call the established Kemalist [secularist] elite and I guess now they are beyond that stage. I suppose they feel they are no longer as concerned about becoming a practicing full member of the European Union," Sahin said.
In that setting, the key to turning the tide may be domestic political forces rather than international pressure. The Turkish president, Abdullah Gul -- a founding member of the AKP -- has already voiced opposition to the current trend in a series of tweets criticizing the YouTube ban and Google restrictions. He said he had instructed officials to look at changing the law to end website bans which he said prevented Turkey from "integrating with the world."
Sahin says further action is needed in the form of popular protest movements and a pledge from the main opposition Republican People's Party to promote Internet freedom.
"What needs to be done is stronger reaction from the population, especially from younger people, because they're the ones who are being punished because of this ban on YouTube and the restriction on Google services," Sahin said.
"I guess what needs to be done is to get organized at the grassroots level and a second practical step would be for the main opposition party, the Republican People's Party, to take the leadership for once in defending freedom of speech issues and making Internet freedom one of its campaign promises."
By. Robert Tait