Restrictive social media regulations enter into force in Turkey

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Turkey’s new regulations regulating social media took effect on October 1, with tighter restrictions and control over platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and potential risks for dissidents in the country.

With the new law, Internet platforms with more than 1 million daily active users are obliged to open offices in Turkey and to remove content deemed offensive within 48 hours based on local court decisions. The social media companies will also be required to store user data locally, raising privacy concerns as it means they will be providing prosecutors with user data when required. 

In the event of noncompliance with the regulation, they will face punitive measures, including the blocking of advertisements, fines of up to 40 million Turkish lira ($5.1 million), and a slowing of bandwidth by up to 90 percent, meaning in effect inaccessibility to the websites.

The new regulations have raised concerns since one of the few remaining spaces for free public debate could be lost in the country, which has already been under the tight control of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government.

The AKP and its Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) ally argue that the law is necessary to protect the public from cybercrime and libel and women from harassment and bullying. Critics, however, raise concerns about broader AKP control over the flow of information and more pressure on dissent.

It remains to be seen whether the social media companies will comply with the new rules or opt to leave the country. Also unclear is whether the regime will be successful in silencing dissent on social media.

“The objective of the law is to threaten social media companies with a comply-or-die message. [But] we believe that these days it is really impossible in a country like Turkey to suppress social media — it is so much a part of people’s lives,” Emma Sinclair-Webb, the Turkey director of Human Rights Watch, told AFP.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s open threats targeting social media date back to the December 17-25, 2013 investigations into corruption, bribery, and bid-rigging, which implicated Erdoğan and his close circle.  

In March 2014 access to Twitter was restricted in Turkey hours after Erdoğan threatened to “wipe out” the platform due to leaked recordings posted on Twitter that showed evidence of corruption among his inner circle.

“We will wipe out Twitter. I don’t care what the international community says,” Erdoğan said at the time.

Since then, the Erdoğan regime has systematically restricted access to websites and content. By the end of 2019 access to 408,000 websites, 40,000 tweets, 10,000 YouTube videos, and 6,200 Facebook posts had been blocked in the country, according to Sevket Uyanik, a privacy rights advocate.

“When this is already the case, imagine what it will be like after October 1,” Uyanik told AFP.

Turkey ranks among the top three countries, along with Russia and Japan, in the number of requests to take down posts in 2019, Twitter said.

The new law was quickly approved by the Turkish parliament in July shortly after Erdoğan warned that he would either control or completely shut down social media platforms over “immoral content” following insults on Twitter that targeted his daughter Esra and son-in-law, Finance Minister Berat Albayrak.

Most media outlets in Turkey are already controlled by the AKP – reportedly more than 90 percent of conventional media — thanks to the purchase of media brands by pro-government conglomerates.

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