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July 28, 2020


TURKEY: Erdogan’s showdown with social media platforms

BY Wolfango Piccoli

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Jointly prepared by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), the social media bill passed the Parliamentary Justice Commission last week. It is now expected to be debated and approved by the General Assembly of the Parliament this week. The law will enable the government to control social media, to have content removed at will, and to arbitrarily target individual users.

The nine-article bill is expected to be swiftly processed and become law in the coming days, given the clear majority held by the two parties in parliament. In its current formulation the bill leaves social media platforms with two choices: to acquiesce to the new law or be unable to operate in the country. While individual users may find ways around the law (internet savvy users in Turkey normally circumvent restrictions by alternating their connection locations via VPNs), the new legislation will represent a major test for social media firms.

President Tayyip Erdogan’s aversion to social media platforms dates back to huge anti-government protests in 2013, which were often mobilized by Twitter and Facebook posts. The ruling AKP has devoted plenty of resources into social media since the 2016 coup attempt, creating an army of online trolls. By the end of 2019, 408k websites, 7k Twitter accounts, 40k tweets, 10k YouTube videos and 6k Facebook posts were legally blocked in the country, according to a report by the Istanbul-based Freedom of Expression Association. But despite these massive efforts, the AKP has failed to exert the same kind of control over social media that it does over traditional media, such as newspapers and television channels, over 90% of which are now in the hands of government supporters. Erdogan has now decided to turn the screw by targeting directly social media firms rather than individual users.

As for the timing and the government’s rush on this matter, it is not a coincidence that the initiative was launched when the AKP is struggling on the popularity front. Recent polls suggest that support for the AKP has fallen to around 30%.

A draconian social media censorship bill

The legislation makes it compulsory for social media companies based outside of Turkey with more than one million daily users from the country to establish a formal presence or assign a representative in Turkey who would be accountable to the local authorities legally and for tax purposes. A representative should be appointed within 30 days after the legislation comes into force. Social media platforms that fail to assign a local representative will face five levels of sanctions that will gradually increase at each step. These include administrative fines, advertising bans and restrictions of bandwidth (from 50% to 95%) making the platform gradually unusable. Service providers will be required to implement all orders for bandwidth restriction in a maximum of four hours.

The legislation also imposes on social network providers the obligation to respond to user complaints submitted concerning content that allegedly violates personal and privacy rights within 48 hours. Social media firms will also be held liable in case of failure to comply with court orders to ban access to or remove content.

Another regulation introduced with the draft law is that social network providers will be obliged to store data belonging to their users from Turkey in the country. This is likely to make it easier for Turkish authorities such as prosecutors or other state bodies to access user data.

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