Turkey parliament set to approve tight social media curbs

Turkey’s parliament is poised to approve legal measures imposing tighter controls on social media, including possible bans on online companies.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has vowed to press ahead with plans to introduce legislation controlling social media platforms or shutting them down after saying in early July that his family were insulted online.

The draft bill stipulates that social media giants like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok must appoint a legal representative in Turkey to whom courts can turn to make requests to remove content or provide the identity of users.

European Union officials and human rights groups have expressed concern about the bill, saying it threatens to further compromise freedom of speech in Turkey and undercut democracy.

“It is essential for everyone who values and champions free speech to recognize how damaging these new restrictions will be in a country where an autocracy is being constructed by silencing media and all critical voices,” Tom Porteous, deputy program director at Human Rights Watch, said on Monday..

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

Social media companies with more than one million users must appoint a legal representative in Turkey or their bandwidth will be slashed to 50 percent and then to 95 percent should they fail to comply. The draft regulation will also allow the government to impose other penalties such as heavy fines and bans on advertising and access.

Turkey’s largest opposition parties are united in their opposition to the bill. Lawmakers of the Republican People's Party (CHP), the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) and the nationalist-conservative Good Party say it aims to strengthen censorship and cover up alleged corruption.

"With this legislation, some domestic companies and a large number of international companies will withdraw from Turkey," the opposition parties said in a joint statement, according to news website Gazete Duvar.

Erdoğan’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) is supported in parliament by the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP), which is backing the bill. On Monday, the MHP called for the legislation to include a ban on virtual private networks (VPNs), which many Turks use to circumvent existing internet restrictions and content bans.

Parliament is also considering the law after thousands of young Turks posted comments slamming Erdoğan during a live online broadcast he held in June. Many then joined a hashtag campaign on Twitter entitled #OyMoyYok (Not getting my vote).

Turkey has already barred access to 61,049 websites, some 7,000 Twitter accounts, 40,000 tweets, 10,000 YouTube videos and 6,200 Facebook posts, the opposition parties said in their statement.

The current social media law in Turkey has proven problematic since its introduction in 2007, leading to a lengthy ban on YouTube for its failure to remove content allegedly insulting Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

The new legislation "hangs the Damocles's Sword over the heads of major social media companies" and means Turkey would join the worst oppressor regimes of the world, such as China and Iran, said Ahval editor-in-chief Yavuz Baydar.

"Given the brutal and anti-free speech nature of the government, the regulations will intimidate social media - individuals and news outlets alike - into such intense self-censorship that the public, which already endures severe restrictions on access to truth and pluralist discourse, will inevitably find itself in darkness," Baydar said. 

The bill will impose fines of up to €50 million ($56.4 million) on social media companies who fail to swiftly remove hate speech and other illegal content from their platforms. Any such content would have to be deleted by the firms within 24 hours. Government officials justifying the measures say there are similar German regulations in place.

The legal package is also aimed at removing any content linking the AKP with the outlawed Gülen movement, which the government blames for a failed military coup in 2016, and news on alleged corruption, the opposition parties said.

(This story was updated with comment in the 14th and 15th paragraphs.)