Turkey's Erdoğan aims to tighten grip on social media with new law - lawyer

The Turkish government’s plans to implement tighter social media controls, which includes banning online companies who do not meet its requirements, aim to extend censorship, information technology lawyer Burçak Ünsal told Ahval.

"We can say that the amendments aim swift and certain blocking of access to content that is disliked by the government rather than fighting against cyber crimes and protecting personal rights when we take the bill's scope and timing, as well as Turkey's poor record of freedom of expression and freedom of information, into account," Ünsal said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on July 1 that he would press ahead with the government's plans to introduce legislation to control social media platforms or shut them down, after he said his family was insulted online.

Some Turkey analysts say another motive behind Erdoğan's recent move was thousands of young Turks blasting the Turkish president with real-time comments during a live stream event in June and launching the #OyMoyYok (“Not getting my vote” in Turkish) hashtag campaign on Twitter.

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

According to the draft legislation, social media companies that have more than one million users will be required to have a representative in Turkey to handle legal requests. The internet traffic bandwidth of such companies that do not comply will first be reduced to 50 percent and later to 95 percent, as stated in the draft regulation that will also allow the government to impose other penalties such as advertising and access bans.

Turkey issued the most requests to Twitter to withhold content last year, more than 6,000, but just 5 percent of these were granted.

However, social media giants have been making huge profits on the Turkish market, so they would be unlikely to stop their operations in the country even if the new legislation is enacted, Ünsal said.

"These companies have significant revenues from Turkey. They all knew or should have known what was coming. They could not easily discard those revenues," she said.

"What has happened so far was no less severe or less harmful than the changes proposed today. But they remained. They will remain again."

The draft bill seeks to impose fines of up to €50 million ($56.4 million) on social media companies that fail to swiftly remove hate speech and other illegal content from their platforms. Any illegal content would have to be deleted by the social media companies within 24 hours. Government officials supporting the bill have said that there are similar German laws on the matter.

"These changes have similar sides to the legislation regulating social media platforms in Germany. Unfortunately, the main problem is that the [Turkish] draft law is much more restrictive and promotes arbitrariness by increasing criminal liabilities when we look at the whole scheme," Ünsal said.

Meanwhile, the AKP intends to effectively end anonymity on social media platforms, with sites expected to implement systems to confirm the ID of their users, which would end the possibility to use anonymous Twitter or YouTube accounts to criticise the government. 

"It does not mean that every person may commit a crime if they use an anonymous profile. Some may commit a crime under their real name, but may not be pursued. Unfortunately, such situations are encountered in our country. The only thing is that use of VPNs will increase," Ünsal said.

Turkey has been the global leader in requests for content removal from Twitter since 2014, while Turkish courts are responsible for nearly two-thirds of the world’s censored Twitter content, including tweets and accounts of journalists, politicians and activists.

Meanwhile, the government is prone to blocking internet access altogether in moments of crisis and thousands have been charged with insulting the president or making terrorist propaganda over their social media posts.