There are those that contend Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian Turkey is on the way to becoming an Islamised one-party state and the approval given by lawmakers early in the morning on July 29 to legislation that allows for heavy crackdowns on social media will do their case no harm.
Turks are already heavily policed on social media and the new regulations, especially if user data is vulnerable, will have a “chilling effect”, Yaman Akdeniz, a cyber rights expert and professor at Istanbul Bilgi University, was reported as saying by Reuters.
“This will lead to identifying dissenters, finding who is behind parody accounts and more people being tried. Or people will stop using these platforms when they realise this,” he added. “People in Turkey are already afraid to speak out.”
Ozgur Ozel, senior lawmaker from the main opposition and secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), called the law an “act of revenge”. “Maybe you can silence us and opponents, but you cannot silence the youth,” he said in parliament before the law passed at around 07:00 local time after an overnight debate.
Ahead of the vote on the social media law, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the Turkish government was rushing a legal amendment to Turkey’s internet law through parliament before the summer recess in a move to force social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to comply with any demands by the government to block or remove content.
“Signals new dark era”
“If passed, the new law will enable the government to control social media, to get content removed at will, and to arbitrarily target individual users,” said Tom Porteous, deputy program director at HRW. “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.”
“It is essential for everyone who values and champions free speech to recognize how damaging these new restrictions will be in a country where an autocracy is being constructed by silencing media and all critical voices,” Porteous said. “Social media companies should loudly and unequivocally call on Turkey to drop this law, and the EU should resolutely back this call.”
The law was brought to parliament after Erdogan said “order” must be restored, citing what he described as insults on social media over the birth of his eighth grandchild. The president has criticised the rise of “immoral acts” online that he said was due to a lack of regulation. His Justice and Development Party (AKP), which holds a majority in parliament with the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), said the law would not lead to censorship and that it aimed to safeguard personal rights and data.
Enables content removal
The law permits Turkish authorities to remove content from platforms rather than blocking access as they have done in the past. Companies including the social media giants that do not comply could have their bandwidth slashed by up to 90%, essentially blocking online access, and face other penalties. They must also store local users’ information in Turkey. Akdeniz said social media companies would need to comply with every request from authorities including accessing user data and content removal that they currently do not accept.
Turkey, one of the world’s biggest jailers of journalists, ranks behind Zimbabwe, Rwanda and Azerbaijan in internet freedom, according to Freedom House, a US-based non-governmental organisation focused on democracy and human rights. Due to ownership changes that have taken place during Erdogan's near two decades as Turkey's leader, something like 90% of the Turkish media is pro-government.
Turkey was second globally in Twitter-related court orders in the first six months of 2019, according to the company. It also had the highest number of other legal demands from Twitter.
“Today’s vote is the latest, and perhaps most brazen attack on free expression in Turkey,” Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International’s Turkey researcher, was quoted as saying by Bloomberg. The new law would “significantly increase the government’s powers to censor online content and prosecute social media users”, he added.