Turkey gains control of only remaining free media with new social media legislation

Amy Langley, Chief International Officer

31 Jul 2020

Turkey’s new social media legislation, passed on Wednesday, 29 July, gives the Turkish government sweeping powers to regulate social media content in the country, raising issues of data privacy and stifling of free speech and legitimate public debate.

The new legislation, set to have effect from the 1st of October, gives unprecedented control over social media platforms with over 1 million daily users – such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Social media companies falling within the law’s ambit must open offices in Turkey, with the authorities given powers to put up barriers to those who refuse – for example, reducing bandwidth to make the platforms essentially unusable in Turkey. The Turkish government and individuals have the power to demand specific content on social media platforms be removed – a request that must be complied with by the company within 48 hours. Additionally, the laws raise strong privacy concerns, as they require platforms to store user data within the country.

The new legislation has piled onto existing concerns for free speech and debate in the country. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made many steps already to regulate traditional media across the country – 90 per cent of Turkey’s traditional media is controlled directly or indirectly by the government and those with very close ties to it. Having already banned Wikipedia, imposed controls on streaming sites such as Netflix and cracked down on social media censorship, the Turkish government’s move comes as little surprise. In passing the law, it was accepted that the move would allow more control and regulation by the government of digital communications within the country.

Although the new laws are claimed to address the risks of cybercrime and to protect citizens from offensive online content, critics have called this out as a blatant move to control information flow in and out of the country and to quash dissent and stifle criticism of the Turkish government.

Human Rights Watch deputy program director, Tom Porteous, stated that the legislation “will enable the government to control social media, to get content removed at will and to arbitrarily target individual users”. Given the critical role social media plays in access to news for those living in countries where media is controlled, Porteous claimed that “this law signals a new dark era of online censorship”.

Other critics have also condemned the new laws for their effect on human rights. One online rights expert, Yaman Akdeniz, stated that the government’s “aim is to silence” and that “a new and dark period in Turkey is starting”. Adrian Shahbaz, director for technology and democracy at Freedom House, commented that “Turkish authorities are aiming to coerce social media companies to comply with censorship and surveillance. Requiring companies to establish a legal presence and store data on local servers is an attempt to gain leverage. This move is part of a global trend of governments passing data localization laws to curtail human rights online. It’s not about protecting users—there are better ways to achieve that—this is about governments gaining new powers to police what people say and how they say it.”

Read more about the new social media legislation by following this Freedom House link: https://freedomhouse.org/article/turkey-passage-social-media-law-curtails-human-rights-online.

For another perspective, check out this post by the Carnegie Endowment: https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/07/30/turkey-issued-new-rules-for-social-media.-that-may-mean-that-media-censorship-wasn-t-working-pub-82402.