How Turkey's ruling AKP works to take control of the Internet

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is working to use a new law regulating social media to constrain the remaining space for dissent on the Internet. 

On July 29, 2020, the Turkish parliament updated the country’s Law No.5651 and social media regulations within it. The most controversial part of the law requires social media companies to appoint a representative to Turkey to respond to requests from the authorities for the removal or moderation of content on their platforms. 

Dr Aslı Telli, a research fellow at the University of Siegen, explained that the update to Law No. 5651 was simply a continuation of creeping government control over the Internet inside Turkey. The defining moment that saw these efforts increase, according to Telli, was in the aftermath of the failed military coup of July 15, 2016.

“The impact of this on digital rights and freedoms was very costly and devastating for the whole society, especially digital rights defenders and civil society,” Telli said. 

Following the coup attempt, the government declared a state of emergency that significantly curtailed civil rights inside Turkey. Importantly, the state of emergency allowed the government to process decree laws when it deemed necessary or if it felt its authority threatened.  These measures were frequently condemned by rights groups because of the way they diminished online freedoms. 

“The impact of this on digital rights and freedoms was very costly and devastating for the whole society, especially digital rights defenders and civil society,” said Telli. 

She stressed that even these measures are part of a longer trend of squeezing the space for dissent Turks could find online, particularly on social media. The recently updated internet law was first issued in 2007, and was steadily made more severe following the 2013 Gezi Park protests that rattled President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government. Telli described the Gezi protests, when some four million people held demonstrations against the government throughout the summer, as having “aggravated these measures and increased the assault of the government on digital freedoms.”

Turkey’s attempts to constrict the ability of social media companies to provide an unfettered space to share and receive information has moved it into the company of other illiberal governments around the world. In India, the populist government led by Prime Minister Nahrenda Modi passed a law last November giving it new powers to regulate social media and content providers such as Netflix. Earlier this month, Poland’s government drafted a new law that would limit platforms’ ability to ban content even if it violates their terms and conditions. 

Behind these pieces of legislation, Telli sees a pattern of illiberal regimes using the law to prevent social media from being used to either prevent any disruption of their polarising online tactics and to disrupt their rivals.

“The whole media landscape is basically under assault by political polarisation or one party in this country,” she explained. 

For years, the AKP-led government took a number of measures to squeeze its own opponents online by fostering an environment of distrust and fear. Trolls and bot accounts connected to the state apparatus have targeted critical voices online (including journalists) or promoted AKP positions. Among the more chilling undertakings of the authorities was the release of a smartphone app in December 2016 created by the Turkish National Police that allowed citizens to report what they considered terrorist propaganda on the internet. 

“I think this is a really strategic move because the AKP or the dictator in the lead right now are on to pulling any dirty trick possible,” said Telli, who views the reporting apps in particular as polarising tactics that “are just pushing neighbours or friends into becoming adversaries.”

Polarising tactics are not new for the AKP, which has used them with increasing frequency during its years in power. However, with the weight of the challenges brought on Turkey by the global coronavirus pandemic, the amount of repression online may intensify. 

As the AKP loses more votes in polls, Telli said, the more it turns into what she called a dictatorship. “They just want to use that very open space for their own purpose and keep polluting it.”