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Turkish Plan to Muzzle Social Media Delayed by Pandemic

The logo of Twitter is seen on a smartphone held besides a Turkish flag. Photo: EPA/Karl-Josef Hildenbrand

A proposed law on social media, giving the authorities more control over their content, has not yet come before parliament – but the opposition fears it’s just a matter of time before it does.

As Turkey, like the rest of the world, struggles with the coronavirus pandemic, its government plans to take another step to further restrict digital rights in the country.

A draft law will create new responsibilities for answering the government’s demands on their content for social media giants such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and popular messaging apps like WhatsApp and Messenger.

The law on social media was dropped from the parliamentary schedule on Tuesday to make way for more urgent bills on the economy and health amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But civil society groups and opposition parties fear it will be back before long.

Human rights watchdogs, experts and the opposition suspect the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is using the coronavirus crisis to place further controls over social media.

Experts warn that the planned measures would have serious consequences for tech companies’ activities, and may result in some leaving the country.

The draft law on social media has been sent to the business world and unions for consultation, but the opposition is sure it will come back to parliament soon.

“Erdogan’s intention is to close down the social media with this draft law. They will try to bring the draft law [back to parliament] at the first possible chance,” Garo Paylan, an MP from the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, HDP, told the media on Tuesday.

A day earlier, the director of the Turkish branch of Human Rights Watch, HRW, Emma Sinclair-Webb, wrote: “Not content with simply cracking down on individuals for critical social media posts, Erdogan’s presidency is now intent on using the COVID-19 crisis as a pretext to exert direct control over social media platforms.”

Emre Kursat Kaya, a security analyst with the Istanbul-based Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, EDAM, says times of pandemics are usually compared to wartime periods for a reason.

“People are pushed to make a choice between their individual freedoms and more security from public authorities. Most of the time, it is the latter that prevails. Not many questions are asked and debates around issues are mostly avoided as the crisis requires rapid responses,” Kaya told BIRN.

New law creates long list of obligations

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, Turkey, 2020. Photo: EPA-EFE/STR

The draft law obliges foreign social media companies with high internet traffic to appoint an official representative in Turkey to answer authorities’ demands concerning the content on their platforms.

Companies will need to respond to communications from the authorities about their content within 72 hours and compile and notify officials of all removed or blocked content in three-month periods, the draft law says.

More importantly, the companies will also be asked to store data belonging to Turkish users within the country.

If they fail to respond to official requests within 72 hours, they will face penalties up to 135 million euros. Companies that do not compile the removed or blocked content, or do not store data in Turkey, could be fined up to 675 million euros.

The draft law also says that companies that do not follow the government’s new rules could face having their bandwidth halved after 30 days by a court order, and then reduced by 95 per cent if they continue to flout the rules for another 30 days.

“The Turkish authorities have long demanded to have official representatives of online service providers,” Kaya noted.

“This demand was linked to a wish to accelerate the removal of unlawful content from online platforms. But even without having a representative in Turkey, these platforms tend to respond to removal requests quite rapidly, and faster than the 72 hours expected by the text,” he added.

Kaya said the first two aspects of the proposed law would not have such a big impact on how fast content is deleted, but “will only add another layer of pressure on online service providers by taking their representatives as responsible”.

He added: “What’s more worrying …  is the third aspect, which basically requires data localization from online service providers.

“This is highly problematic as there is no precedent of such action from these global companies and this could result in them simply leaving the Turkish market,” he continued.

Companies may quit market rather than obey

Two Turkish women try to get connected to the Twitter in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo: EPA/TOLGA BOZOGLU

Taylan Yıldız, a former Google analyst and member of the Istanbul Municipal Council from the opposition Good Party, said that the draft law has many open-ended articles, and it will mostly affect people with pro-opposition ideas and opposition parties.

In March alone, 433 Turkish citizens were detained because for social media posts that allegedly spread fake or manipulative news on the coronavirus pandemic.

At least four people were arrested or fined for their social media posts, including Fikri Saglar, a former lawmaker from the main opposition Republican People’s Party, CHP.

A legal investigation was also started against Omer Gergerlioglu, an HDP MP, because of his social media posts on the effect of the pandemic on Turkey’s overcrowded prisons.

“Companies are left with only two options. They will stop their operations in Turkey, or they will block every content following the government’s complaints,” Yildiz wrote in his personal blog.

Yildiz said that if social media companies withdraw operations from the country, “Turkey will become introverted and will face a disconnection with the rest of the world”.

Turkey previously blocked several social media companies because of their refusals to delete some content.

Court rulings blocked Twitter several times in 2014, though the ban was later lifted following an agreement between Twitter and the government.

As of 2018, Twitter reported that the Turkish government accounted for more than 52 per cent of all content removal requests worldwide; Twitter only answered 4 per cent of the government’s requests.

Turkey also banned the social information platform Wikipedia for more than two-and-a-half years because of content that the government wanted removed. In a surprise decision, the Constitutional Court lifted the ban on January 15, 2020.

“If the legislation passes as it stands, the main issue for social media providers will be the demand for data localization. This is practically impossible, as it would mean an additional financial burden and unavoidable security risks for these companies,” Kaya, from EDAM, said.

He said the demand for data localization was not unique to Turkey, so if companies concede it to Turkey, they will face pressure to do the same for many other countries. “Sadly, this will probably result in many of them leaving the Turkish market,” he predicted.

The worldwide online payments system PayPal ceased all of its operations in Turkey for similar issues in 2016. “Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp could follow in PayPal’s footsteps and disable the use their applications in Turkey,” Kaya concluded.

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