European Court Rules against Blanket Internet Access Ban

NEW YORK—The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has reinforced the right of individuals to access the internet, in a ruling against wholesale blocking of online content, asserting that the internet has "now become one of the principal means of exercising the right to freedom of expression and information.”

The ruling inYildirim v.Turkey is one of the first by the court to deal with internet freedom issues, with the applicant, a Turkish PhD student named Ahmet Yildirim, claiming he had faced “collateral censorship” when his Google-hosted website was shut down by the authorities in 2009 as a result of a court action aimed at another site.

The Open Society Justice Initiative filed a third party brief supporting the applicant’s claim that outlined comparative standards and relevant international law.

Darian Pavli, a lawyer at the Justice Initiative who worked on the submisison, said: “This is the first ruling by an international tribunal on wholesale blocking of internet content, and a very significant precedent. The court made clear that access to online content is a fundamental right, and that it can only be restricted in exceptional cases, subject to full judicial review.”

Yildirim’s academically-focused site was blocked by the Turkish regulator, TiM, as a result of a court injunction that ordered it to close down local access to the entire Google Sites domain. The move was supposedly aimed at a single website hosted by Google which included content deemed offensive to the memory of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, in breach of Turkish law.

Yildirim’s appeals against the injunction were turned down by the Turkish courts, which argued that the blanket ban was reasonable because it was not possible for the authorities to block a single Google-hosted site.

In its judgment, the ECHR noted that the regulator had not attempted to contact Google to seek the closure of the offending site, and that the 2007 law that allowed the regulator to close down foreign-hosted sites did not permit blocking an entire domain such as Google Sites.

The court repeated its view “that a restriction on access to a source of information was only compatible with the [European Convention on Human Rights] if a strict legal framework was in place regulating the scope of a ban and affording the guarantee of judicial review to prevent possible abuses.”

It found a violation of Article 10 of the convention (right to freedom of expression).

The judgment further made clear that the Turkish courts “should have had regard to the fact that such a measure would render large amounts of information inaccessible, thus directly affecting the rights of internet users and having a significant collateral effect.”

The Justice Initiative, part of the Open Society Foundations, uses law to protect and empower people around the world. Our work on freedom of information has included supporting the development of effective freedom of information laws, and litigation aimed at strengthening and protecting the right to information around the world.