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19th Sep 2020

Turkey's new social media bill under immediate fire

  • In Turkey last year, 408,494 websites and some 7,000 Twitter accounts, 40,000 tweets, 10,000 YouTube videos and 6,200 Facebook posts were legally blocked by the state (Photo: Kyra Preston)

Turkey's parliament passed early on Wednesday (29 July) a bill regulating social media which aims to further strengthen state control of online platforms and users' data in the country.

Leading human rights groups voiced immediate concerns about the "far-reaching" amendments to the law in Turkey, backed by president Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling AK party and its allied nationalist party MHP.

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The new bill demands foreign social media companies with more than a million users in Turkey store their users' data in the country, and open an office in the country staffed by at least one representative able to address complaints from state authorities.

To do so, a new definition of "social media provider" will be introduced, with a clear representative responsible for investigations and legal proceedings.

Additionally, social networks will be forced to remove content found to be offensive by Turkish authorities within 48 hours.

However, the bill also introduces a series of court-ordered penalties "to encourage compliance" with the new rules - including fines up to €50m, blocking advertising, or having bandwidth slashed by Turkish internet providers, essentially blocking access.

"Our first priority is never the closure of social media providers. We aim to end insults, bad language and harassment on social media," said AKP legislator chair Özlem Zengin last week, adding that the bill aims to balance freedoms with obligations.

The MHP, meanwhile, on Monday (27 July) called for the new bill to also include a ban on virtual private networks (VPNs) as they are commonly used in Turkey to avoid existing restrictions.

'Powerful state tool'

Human rights groups said that, if adopted, the new legislation might further undermine freedom of expression and weaken independent journalism in the country.

"It is essential for everyone who values and champions free speech to recognise how damaging these new restrictions will be in a country where autocracy is being constructed by silencing media and all critical voices," said on Monday Tom Porteous from NGO Human Rights Watch.

"Social media companies should loudly and unequivocally call on Turkey to drop this law, and the EU should resolutely back this call," he added.

According to a spokesperson for the UN high commissioner for human rights, the draft law "would give the state powerful tools for asserting even more control over the media landscape".

Meanwhile, Amnesty International urged Turkish authorities to bin the bill and implement the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights, which found Turkey in violation of the right to freedom of expression - when the country blocked Wikipedia in 2017.

The new bill appears to be the latest step in Turkey's long list of social media and internet restrictions inside the country.

A report published earlier this year by the Istanbul-based Freedom of Expression Association indicates that 408,494 websites, and some 7,000 Twitter accounts, 40,000 tweets, 10,000 YouTube videos and 6,200 Facebook posts were already, legally, blocked in the country only last year.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said that the new bill is "a blatant attempt" to make international companies responsible for censoring on behalf of Turkish authorities.

"For years, social media posts have been used to prosecute Turkish journalists, and the proposed measures would put them even more at risk for sharing information with the public," said Gulnoza Said from the CPJ in a statement.

Turkey is ranked 154 out of 180 countries in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.

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