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Turkey Seeks Power to Control Social Media

New Draft Law Would Force Social Media Companies to Submit to Censorship

People check their phones at a market in central Istanbul, Türkiye, July 18, 2019. © 2019 AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti
Update: On April 14, Human Rights Watch learned from members of Turkey’s parliament that the government has withdrawn draft amendments to control social media companies for the present

Not content with simply cracking down on individuals for critical social media posts, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s presidency is now intent on using the COVID-19 crisis as a pretext to exert direct control over social media platforms like Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook.

Eight articles buried deep in a draft law on economic measures to address COVID-19, seek to strong-arm social media platforms to submit to Turkish government control and censorship. The draft law, circulated April 9, stipulates that all platforms accessed by over one million users daily must appoint a legal representative in Turkey on whom courts can serve orders to take down content or block access to accounts. Any platform that refuses would see its bandwidth reduced by 50 and then 95 percent, rendering the platform unusable in Turkey. Comply or die is the message.

This representative would have to respond within 72 hours to requests to remove content and block access to accounts and report every three months on what content had been removed. More importantly, platforms would be required to store Turkey-based users’ data in Turkey implying that the authorities could request access to it. Failing to comply could bring fines of up to five million Turkish lira (US$746,000).

In times of war or national crisis, Turkey has often stepped up its regular intimidation and prosecution of people for criticizing government policies on social media. The COVID-19 pandemic is no different: hundreds of citizens have been briefly detained then subjected to criminal investigation and prosecution for social media posts prosecutors deem “publicly threaten health in order to create fear and panic among the population.” Some get a spell in jail before trial on that charge. 

The new draft law, if passed, will go much further. In a country where media censorship is the norm, platforms like Twitter and Facebook will be obliged to restrict social media debate and criticism the Erdogan presidency fears. The Turkish government should withdraw the law, and if it doesn’t parliament should vote against it. Social media companies, the US, the EU and countries and international bodies that champion free speech, as well as social media users in Turkey, should be vocal and unequivocal on calling on Turkey to drop it.  

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