Protesters hold banners reading “Internet of Doomsday!”, "It is impossible to sensor the streets!" and "You can have your own media but you can't get the streets'' as they demonstrate against new controls on the Internet approved by the Turkish parliament in Ankara, February 22, 2014.

(Istanbul) – New legal amendments giving the Turkish authorities broad powers to block websites and to amass users’ internet activity data should be overturned, Human Rights Watch said today.

The new measures deepen existing internet censorship in Turkey, increase surveillance of internet users, and violate privacy. 

“After hosting the 2014 Internet Governance Forum, Prime Minister Davutoglu’s new government has adopted even more provisions to restrict free speech online and the privacy of internet users,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch. “These measures would violate basic rights protected in the constitution and guaranteed under international law and should be struck down.”

A new law adopted by parliament on September 10, 2014, that would amend a range of other laws on a broad range of subjects introduces two new measures increasing the powers of the Telecom Directorate (TIB), a regulatory body whose head is appointed by the government. In July, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then the prime minister, stated that the directorate should be run by the National Intelligence Agency (MİT). The current head is a former MİT operative.

The first measure allows the Telecom Directorate to order closure of sites within four hours for reasons of “national security, to protect public order, or to prevent a crime from being committed.” The order must be submitted to court within 24 hours, and the court must uphold or overturn the order within 48 hours. But courts have tended to accede to government requests to block websites with apparent minimal, if any, scrutiny, raising questions about whether the court review would constitute an effective safeguard. Over the past year, Telecom Directorate moves to block YouTube and Twitter – in the case of Twitter, right after the prime minister called for blocking it – were subsequently sanctioned by court orders relating to particular content.

The broad power to block sites granted to the TIB under the law hugely increases the scope for arbitrary decisions violating rights to free speech and access to information online, Human Rights Watch said.

In February and March the government adopted amendments to the existing internet law (no. 6551) giving the directorate the authority to block internet content deemed to violate privacy. The government’s changes were a response to the circulation of wiretapped telephone conversations of politicians, including the prime minister, via social media. The conversations appeared to show corrupt and lawless activities, bribery, and cronyism at the highest levels. The government dismissed them as fake but also a violation of privacy. 

The second measure mandates the Telecom Directorate to centrally store internet users’ metadata such as online browsing histories, websites visited, and which email addresses a user corresponds with. Such information can be highly revealing of intimate details of online activity, potentially contributing to political profiling of individuals.

Unchecked government access to users’ metadata and browsing history not only violates the right to privacy, but could harm a range of other rights like freedom of expression, association, or the right to health, Human Rights Watch said. Currently internet service providers store this data and make it available only when required to do so by a court order. 

“The retention of metadata by the Telecom Directorate is deeply worrying because it gives the body the direct capacity to conduct surveillance on people’s internet use,” Sinclair-Webb said. “The Turkish government very publicly champions the privacy rights of politicians but doesn’t believe in ordinary people’s right to privacy.” 

These two amendments were included (as articles 126 and 127) in the major reform bill that parliament approved on September 10. There was no prior consultation on the two articles concerning the internet law, which were slipped into the bill at the last minute on September 8. President Erdogan approved the law on September 12 and it will become law when published in the Official Gazette.

Due to the controversial nature of the new measures and the threat they pose to fundamental freedoms, it is expected that the Constitutional Court will be asked to rule on their compatibility with the Turkish Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression and access to information and incorporates the supremacy of Turkey’s international human rights treaty obligations over domestic legislation.

“The latest steps are the latest blow to net freedom and privacy rights in a year in which Turkey unlawfully blocked both Twitter and YouTube,” Sinclair-Webb said. “They should be reversed now, before Turkey has to account for and redress these violations at regional and international levels.”