Erdogan tightens social media control with ‘censorship law’

Turksih president demanded the law, vowing to “control social media platforms” and eradicate “immorality”.

Wednesday 29/07/2020
A social media user holds a portable phone displaying a Twitter error message in front of a Turkish national flag. (Reuters)
A social media user holds a portable phone displaying a Twitter error message in front of a Turkish national flag. (Reuters)

ISTANBUL -  Turkey’s parliament approved a law Wednesday that gives authorities greater power to control social media sparking concerns of tighter censorship.

Opposition lawmakers said the law would further limit freedom of expression in a country where the media is already under tight government control and dozens of journalists are in jail. They called the bill the “censorship law.”

The law requires major social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter to keep representative offices in Turkey to deal with complaints against content on their platforms.

The government says the legislation was needed to combat cybercrime and protect users.

If a social media company refuses to designate an official representative, the legislation mandates steep fines, advertising bans and bandwidth reductions. With a court ruling, bandwidth would be halved, and then cut further. Bandwidth reductions mean social media networks would be too slow to use.

The representative will be tasked with responding to individual requests to take down content violating privacy and personal rights within 48 hours or to provide grounds for rejection. The company would be held liable for damages if the content is not removed or blocked within 24 hours.

Most alarmingly, the nine-article legislation also would require social media providers to store user data in Turkey.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan applauds during a conference in Istanbul, July 28. (AFP)
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan applauds during a conference in Istanbul, July 28. (AFP)

Hundreds of people have been investigated and some arrested over social media posts on the COVID-19 pandemic, opposition to Turkish military offensives abroad or insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other officials.

Erdogan has demanded the law, vowing to “control social media platforms” and eradicate “immorality”.

Cyber-rights activist and academic Yaman Akdeniz tweeted: “A new and dark period is starting in Turkey” with the new law. He argued the law would be used to remove content critical of the government rather than to protect users.

Rights groups and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights came out against the bill Tuesday ahead of the vote, with Amnesty International calling it “draconian.”

“This is a clear violation of the right to freedom of expression online and contravenes international human rights law and standards,” Amnesty International’s Andrew Gardner said.

Human rights groups and the opposition are worried over what they call the erosion of freedom of expression in Turkey, with thousands of people subject to criminal proceedings for “insulting” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on social media.

They argue that increased control of social media will also limit Turkish access to independent or critical information in a country where the news media is in the hands of government-friendly businessmen or controlled by the state.

“Why now?” asked Yaman Akdeniz, professor at Istanbul’s Bilgi University and also a cyber rights expert.

“While print and broadcast media platforms are already under government control, social media networks are relatively free. Social media has become one of the few spaces for free and effective expression in Turkey,” he said.

Human Rights Watch expressed concerns that the law would enable the government to control social media, to get content removed at will and to arbitrarily target individual users.

“Social media is a lifeline for many people who use it to access news, so this law signals a new dark era of online censorship,” said Tom Porteous, deputy program director at Human Rights Watch in a statement before the legislation passed.

Turkey leads the world in removal requests to Twitter, with more than 6,000 demands in the first half of 2019.

More than 408,000 websites are blocked in Turkey, according to The Freedom of Expression Association.

Online encyclopedia Wikipedia was blocked for nearly three years before Turkey’s top court ruled that the ban violated the right to freedom of expression.

54 million people in the country of 83 million are active social media users.

The law passed after 16 hours of tense deliberations in parliament, where Erdogan’s ruling party and its nationalist ally hold the majority of seats. It will be published in the Official Gazette after Erdogan approves it and will come into effect on Oct. 1.