Turkish lawmakers on Wednesday morning passed legislation that would give the government sweeping new powers to regulate content on social media, raising concerns that one of the few remaining spaces for free public debate in the country could fall under greater government control.
The measure orders social media platforms with over 1 million users per day — such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube — to open offices in Turkey and imposes stiff penalties if the companies refuse, including slowing the bandwidth of the sites and making them largely inaccessible.
The companies would be responsible for responding to the demands of the government and individuals to block or remove content hosted on their platforms that is deemed offensive. They would have 48 hours to meet any demand and could face stiff financial penalties if they fail to comply.
The new law also requires the social media giants to store user data inside the country, raising privacy concerns.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and his governing AKP party were behind the legislation, arguing that it was needed to protect social media users from cybercrime and slander. Critics, however, say it is part of a broader effort to control the flow of information in the country and stifle dissent.
“The new law will enable the government to control social media, to get content removed at will and to arbitrarily target individual users,” Tom Porteous, deputy program director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement hours before the overnight vote. “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.”
More than 90% of Turkey’s conventional media is already controlled by conglomerates close to the government, and the law is seen by many as a further extension of that authority.
“Today, while all the conventional media is acting within a certain discipline and order, we will be regulating social media who is acting entirely on its own,” Cahit Ozkan, deputy head of the AKP, said Tuesday in televised remarks.
Erdogan has made no secret of his disdain for social media and of his desire to exert control over digital spaces, much in the same way his government has gained control over traditional media.
Six years ago, when he was embroiled in a corruption scandal widely reported on social media, he vowed to restrict access to the sites.
“We will not allow this nation to be devoured by YouTube, Facebook or whatever,” Erdogan said in 2014. “We will take necessary steps in the firmest way.”
In 2017, the country shocked many international observers when it banned Wikipedia, a restriction that was lifted in January.
The issue took a personal turn more recently, when Erdogan’s newborn grandson, the fourth child of his daughter and Berat Albayrak, who is also the country’s finance minister, was insulted on various social media platforms.
“Those spaces where lies, defamation, attack to personal rights, character assassinations are running wild, should be put in order,” Erdogan told his party officials in a televised speech on July 1.
“We want such social media spaces to be entirely removed, to be controlled,” he added.
But criticism of the law was swift, filling the very social media sites the government was seeking to control.
Yaman Akdeniz, a cyberrights expert, wrote on Twitter that “a new and dark period in Turkey is starting.”
“The aim is to silence,” he wrote. “It is the intention of the Government to clean its past from critical content including news coverage of corruption allegations as well as all sort of irregularities.”
Even without the new legislation, Turkey blocked access to more than 400,000 websites by the end of 2019, according to Akdeniz, whose organization, the Freedom of Expression Association, compiles an annual report on internet access in the country.
Twitter declined to comment after the bill was passed. According to the company’s transparency report for the first half of 2019, Turkey had the highest number of requests for content removal, with more than 6,000 requests.
Over the years, thousands of people have been subject to criminal proceedings for insulting Erdogan in posts on social media.