Turkey reins in social media - one platform at a time

When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became a grandfather for the fourth time last year, his daughter and son-in-law (then-minister of finance) announced the birth of their child over Twitter.

In addition to many celebratory tweets from Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) followers, the couple received insults, too.

The tweets were eventually taken down and the account was deleted. But these insults led to Erdoğan’s renewed interest in finalising legislation in the country to centralise control over social media platforms in Turkey.

“Do you understand why we are against social media such as YouTube, Twitter and Netflix? To eradicate such immorality,” Erdoğan told AKP members during a televised address, referring to the allegedly insulting tweets.

“These platforms do not suit this country. We want these platforms to be banned, taken under control,” Erdoğan said.

The law came as swiftly as the detentions of social media users allegedly behind the insults.

Adopted in July 2020, and effective Oct. 1, 2020, the new social media law (Law on the Regulation of Publications on the Internet and Suppression of Crimes Committed By Means of Such Publications) sets up a series of requirements that will have a lasting impact on digital rights and freedom of expression in Turkey.

Social media companies will be obliged to have an office in Turkey; their representatives will be held accountable in legal affairs; the bandwidth of companies that refuse to open an office will be throttled up to 90 percent; social media companies will be obliged to store users’ data in Turkey; The companies will have to release a report on their activities every six months; failure to do so will result in a fine of up to 10 million liras ($1.3 million USD).

A year after Turkey restored access to Wikipedia, the country is now grappling with these new restrictions.

Although companies did not comply at first, recent fines have forced some social media giants to cave in, with Tik Tok being among the most recent companies to comply.

In April 2020, Human Rights Watch reported on how the social media law appeared under a draft law on economic measures to address COVID-19:

The draft law, circulated on April 9 last year, stipulates that all platforms accessed by over 1 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 percent and then 95 percent, rendering the platform unusable in Turkey.

These proposed amendments were temporarily withdrawn.

But a month later, Turkey's presidency published a 161-page social media guidebook, authored by Fahrettin Altun, head of Media and Communications, with direct advice to “to begin centralizing control of the digital domain”.

Altun believes that social media has become a “life risk” to Turkish citizens who are increasingly imperiled by fast-paced digitisation and therefore benefit from the government’s centralisation of control of digital spaces.

Journalists and internet freedom advocates described the social media guidebook as a tool for censorship.

“The guidebook was a step toward establishing government control over Twitter and other platforms,” said Fatih Polat, editor-in-chief of the opposition newspaper Evrensel, in an interview with Deutsche Welle (DW).

Gulin Cavus, founder of the Turkish fact-checking network Teyit, said the threat of online disinformation does not come from Turkish citizens, as the guidebook claims, but rather from the government agencies that are “knowingly engaging in manipulation”.

In November 2020, Turkey fined Facebook, Twitter and YouTube a total of $1.18 million USD for not complying with their new social media law.

The following month, Turkey's Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK) slapped platforms with a new penalty of 30 million Turkish liras ($3.8 million USD) each, for their failure to hire local representatives.

The fines worked. YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok were among the first companies to appoint local representatives.

Facebook also announced on Jan. 18, 2021, that it would open a local office. Last January, Facebook also announced its decision to appoint a local representative in Turkey in compliance with the new regulations.

In their statement Facebook said:

"We have been closely following developments on Turkey’s recently amended Internet Law No. 5651 which stipulates new requirements for social media platforms. Like other companies, we have decided to begin the process of appointing a legal entity as a local representative in compliance with the law, while also recognising how important it is for our platform to be a place where users can exercise their freedom of expression.

"This decision does not change Facebook’s Community Standards, nor the global process for reviewing government requests, and we will withdraw the representative if we face pressure on either. We will continue to review and evaluate government requests in accordance with these policies, including our commitments as a Global Network Initiative member, and under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. We will continue to report details of the content we restrict, in line with our existing transparency processes."

The TikTok platform said:

"TikTok is a powerful platform that gives voice to diverse communities, and we remain focused on providing people in Turkey the opportunity to express themselves creatively through video, from sharing unique cooking skills to easy tutorials on drawing. We're also committed to respecting local laws in the markets in which we operate, even when we disagree with them. As such, we will comply with the requirements of the law - establishing a local legal entity and providing a local point of contact to the government in Turkey as a next step to compliance - while we maintain our commitment to the freedom of expression that is fundamental to the creativity that thrives in our community."

In retaliation to companies that refused to comply, the Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK) banned online businesses from advertising on Twitter, Periscope and Pinterest, in a decision published in the Official Gazette on Jan. 19.

This move is likely to impact the livelihoods of many in Turkey, at a time when the country is facing economic challenges from an ongoing pandemic.

Meanwhile, the compliance of YouTube, Facebook, TikTok, and other platforms are a “bad precedent that will make it harder for other companies to fight back”, said Electronic Frontier Foundation. EFF was especially critical of YouTube's decision to comply, given the Turkish government’s history of previous attempts to control the platform.

Turkish officials say the law is similar to Germany's NetzDG [Network Enforcement Act]. However, experts disagree. Emma Sinclair-Webb, Human Rights Watch’s Turkey expert, said that unlike in Turkey, Germany has a “clear separation of powers and an independent judiciary”.

According to Engelliweb, a site that documents censored content, as of October 2020, at least 450,000 domains, 140,000 URLs, and 42,000 tweets are currently blocked in Turkey.

On January 21, the International Press Institute (IPI) issued a statement calling on Turkey to withdraw the new law and rescind imposed penalties.

IPI Turkey Program Coordinator Renan Akyavas said:

This law and its penalties threaten the removal of critical voices, including journalists who have been driven from mainstream media, from social media via content removal or self-censorship. Turkey must withdraw this law and all penalties on social media companies issued under it. This law represents a serious expansion of digital censorship and threatens a last bastion for journalists and critical public discussion.

But officials in Ankara are yet to budge.

(This article was originally published by Global Voices, a community of writers, translators, academics, and human rights activists.)

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.