Electronic Frontier Foundation
For years, free speech and press freedoms have been under attack in Turkey. The country has the distinction of being the world’s largest jailer of journalists and has in recent years been cracking down on online speech. Now, a new law, passed by the Turkish Parliament on the 29th of July, introduces sweeping new powers and takes the country another giant step towards further censoring speech online. The law was ushered through parliament quickly and without allowing for opposition or stakeholder inputs and aims for complete control over social media platforms and the speech they host. The bill was introduced after a series of allegedly insulting tweets aimed at President Erdogan’s daughter and son-in-law and ostensibly aims to eradicate hate speech and harassment online. Turkish lawyer and Vice President of Ankara Bar Association IT, Technology & Law Council Gülşah Deniz-Atalar called the law “an attempt to initiate censorship to erase social memory on digital spaces.”
Once ratified by President Erdogan, the law would mandate social media platforms with more than a million daily users to appoint a local representative in Turkey, which activists are concerned will enable the government to conduct even more censorship and surveillance. Failure to do so could result in advertisement bans, steep penalty fees, and, most troublingly, bandwidth reductions. Shockingly, the legislation introduces new powers for Courts to order Internet providers to throttle social media platforms’ bandwidth by up to 90%, practically blocking access to those sites. Local representatives would be tasked with responding to government requests to block or take down content. The law foresees that companies would be required to remove content that allegedly violates “personal rights” and the “privacy of personal life” within 48 hours of receiving a court order or face heavy fines. It also includes provisions that would require social media platforms to store users’ data locally, prompting fears that providers would be obliged to transmit those data to the authorities, which experts expect to aggravate the already rampant self-censorship of Turkish social media users.
While Turkey has a long history of Internet censorship, with several hundred thousand websites currently blocked, this new law would establish unprecedented control of speech online by the Turkish government. When introducing the new law, Turkish lawmakers explicitly referred to the controversial German NetzDG law and a similar initiative in France as a positive example.
Germany’s Network Enforcement Act, or NetzDG for short, claims to tackle “hate speech” and illegal content on social networks and passed into law in 2017 (and has been tightened twice since). Rushedly passed amidst vocal criticism from lawmakers, academia and civil experts, the law mandates social media platforms with one million users to name a local representative authorized to act as a focal point for law enforcement and receive content take down requests from public authorities. The law mandates social media companies with more than two million German users to remove or disable content that appears to be “manifestly illegal” within 24 hours of having been alerted of the content. The law has been heavily criticized in Germany and abroad, and experts have suggested that it interferes with the EU’s central Internet regulation, the e-Commerce Directive. Critics have also pointed out that the strict time window to remove content does not allow for a balanced legal analysis. Evidence is indeed mounting that NetzDG’s conferral of policing powers to private companies continuously leads to takedowns of innocuous posts, thereby undermining the freedom of expression.