Turkey’s parliament passed a bill on Wednesday that regulates social media content in what is being criticized by rights groups as “damaging” to freedom of expression. Here’s what it all means.
What’s in the new law?
The bill imposes comprehensive regulations on social media, requiring foreign social media companies with over 1 million users – such as Twitter and Facebook – to have a representative in the country. Under the new law, social media providers will be required to store domestic user data in Turkey, imposing fines of up to $1.5 million, as well as bandwidth restrictions and advertising bans, for failure to comply.
The government defends the bill as an effort to protect approximately 55 million users in Turkey from disinformation. “The bill was prepared with an innovative approach to protect users as opposed to curtailing them,” Ismail Cesur, a presidential adviser said in a tweet.
“The bill aims to protect the basic rights and freedoms of citizens and to get ahead of the disinformation,” ruling Justice and Development Party deputy chairman Mahir Unal said in an interview with state broadcaster TRT.
Why are rights groups worried?
Critics fear the new law will weaponize social media companies against voices critical of the government.
Turkey’s record on freedom of speech and expression has already been on the decline. More than 408,000 websites were blocked by the end of 2019 in Turkey, according to a report from Turkish internet freedom watchdog Ifade Ozgurlugu Platformu.
In the same period, 7,000 Twitter accounts, 40,000 tweets, 10,000 Youtube videos and 6,200 Facebook content was blocked. While some companies have complied with take down orders from Turkish courts for some content, other requests have been ignored.
The new law forces companies to comply with take-down orders. “The aim is to silence criticism,” said Yaman Akdeniz, a cyber rights expert and law professor at Istanbul’s Bilgi University.
When does it take effect?
The law still needs to be approved by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan but at this point that is just a formality. He has come out in favor of more regulations on social media platforms already. The bill that passed in parliament gives the tech companies until October to comply with the new law.
What are the tech companies doing?
Social media companies have not reacted to the bill yet but cyber rights experts say platforms should leave the Turkish market instead of complying with the new law. “I tell the tech companies, under these circumstances, do not come. If you do, you will become the long arm of the Turkish judiciary system and you will be compelled to comply with all the requests,” said Akdeniz. The law effectively means platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram are going to have to decide whether to pull out of the lucrative Turkish market or stick around while complying with the new measures.
Facebook and Snapchat declined to comment, while Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.
Has this happened elsewhere?
The Turkish government says the bill is modeled after Germany’s Network Enforcement Act on combating hate speech online. “We looked at Germany as our starting point for all of it from ensuring our freedom in using social platforms, to combating disinformation to protecting the right to privacy and the protection of our data and came up with these new regulations,” the ruling party’s Unal said.
But rights groups have criticized the German bill as flawed.
“It is vague, overbroad, and turns private companies into overzealous censors to avoid steep fines, leaving users with no judicial oversight or right to appeal,” said Wenzel Michalski, Germany director at Human Rights Watch in a statement when the German law passed in 2018.
Akdeniz also warned that given Turkey’s political climate, a steep decline in freedom of speech and a track record of silencing critics, “the comparison to Germany doesn’t stand.”