Freedom of expression vs national sovereignty

Matt of WordPress has blogged that WordPress is being entirely blocked in Turkey following a court order. The court order does seem to have been drawn too widely – it wouldn’t take much to end with a situation where all public social networking services are blocked.

It’s interesting to read the comments to get an idea of the range of valid reactions that are possible… bearing in mind that Turkey is a signatory to the convention of human rights and a candidate for membership of the EU, so it is signed up to the concepts of freedom of speech and independent courts. It is not even the first European country to block access to websites by court order (eg French courts blocked yahoo for selling Nazi memorabilia in 2000). We’re not talking about China here, nor are we talking about ‘islamofascism’ as one story on on Guardian’s CiF has tried to claim.

As I’ve noted before (also here) the fundamental problem is one of jurisdiction – locating the debate. The simplistic stance (and one taken my many of the responses) is to say the whole world should act through US courts, treating the concept of national sovereignty as a relict of an earlier time. Somehow that doesn’t seem right…

My instincts are to go the other way. That is, to say that it’s right to treat it as a problem for the Turkish legal system to resolve within Turkey; as a US entity, WordPress should do nothing until ordered to do so by US courts. In support of this, in the Yahoo!/France case, a US district court ruled that:

Although France has the sovereign right to regulate what speech is permissible in France, this court may not enforce a foreign order that violates the protections of the United States Constitution by chilling protected speech that occurs simultaneously within our borders [quote from news.com.com, 8 November 2001]

I’ll admit that a whole new set of questions are raised:

  • Is WordPress then vulnerable to being prosecuted for the equivalent of contempt of court?
  • Who should appeal against the blocking, if not WordPress? Other affected blogger?
  • What if WordPress wanted to keep a presence on the Turkish web?

My current thinking is that it would make things a lot clearer if ALL domains had a clear national context – getting rid of .com etc. WordPress should be running off a .us domain – I suppose .com is implicitly American; I think most users mistakenly believe it is international).

Looks like there is a need for the internet equivalent of the Law of Sea to set out a framework for resolving this sort of issue.

About Peter Cruickshank

Lecturer in the School of Computing and Research Fellow in the Centre for Social Informatics at Edinburgh Napier University, Scotland. Interested in information management, politics, society, ICT, security and where they intersect. My attempts at rounding out my character include food, cinema, running, history and together with my lovely wife bringing up a boy and cat.
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4 Responses to Freedom of expression vs national sovereignty

  1. jameshigham says:

    Can’t agree here – that would make it subject to national regulations.

  2. Interesting point. I’d like to find out more about what you mean…

    Currently, WordPress is subject to national regulations anyway – those of the USA at least. That’s fair enough within the USA and WordPress is an american organisation, so if judgements were to be made against WordPress I guess it’s arguable that they would have to be enforced through the US legal system. The DMCA has some pretty draconian take-down provisions, so its not like the USA offers unlimited freedom either.

    In general, I do kind of think that nations should be able to apply their law within their own borders. (In fact, Turkey has accepted a limitation on its sovereignty by signing up to the Convention on Human Rights).

    It seems to be that the alternatives are to say that either (a) the internet is above the law or (b) USA law should be privileged above everyone, at least for US-based websites.

    Or do you have something else in mind?

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