Turkey: Social Media Law Will Increase Censorship

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People check their phones at a market in central Istanbul, Turkey, July 18, 2019.

© 2019 AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti

(Istanbul) – The Turkish government’s efforts to introduce new powers to control social media will greatly increase online censorship, particularly in light of the country’s poor record on freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Turkish government is 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.

“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 Human Rights Watch. “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.”

The draft amendment would require social media companies with over one million users a day to have offices in Turkey. The penalty for companies that didn’t comply would be fines and restriction of bandwidth making the platform unusable. The companies that open these offices would have to comply with government demands to block and remove content or face very heavy fines. Since the law also stipulates that user data has to be stored locally, Human Rights Watch is concerned that compliance with removal requests would also entail handing over the personal details of individual users if ordered to do so by a court.  

Turkey’s presidency under Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been seeking to introduce this amendment for several months. It was first floated in an April bill on economic measures to address Covid-19 but was then withdrawn. The current proposal is a revised version of the April draft, adding provisions to order the full removal of content and increasing the level of fines social media companies could face for noncompliance. Because the president’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in coalition with the far-right National Action Party (MHP), has a majority in parliament, the bill could easily be passed into law, even though it flouts human rights standards.

“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.”