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ISTANBUL — The European Union says free speech is too important to be regulated by companies. Activists say Turkey’s social media law shows the danger of leaving it to governments.
Turkey’s internet legislation requires sites with more than a million daily users to appoint a local representative by next month to enforce court orders to remove content. Global platforms must also store user data within Turkey — a practice known as data localization — which critics say may expand government surveillance of citizens.
Rights campaigners say the new rules, which impose heavy fines, ad bans and a squeeze on bandwidth if social media companies fail to meet the April deadline, could make them complicit in undermining civil liberties.
Twitter, one of the last holdouts, announced in March that it was joining Facebook and Google in appointing a legal representative to avoid its Turkish users getting cut off.
“This law comes amid a steep degradation in internet freedom over the past decade in Turkey and could be the nail in the coffin for online freedom of speech,” said Cathryn Grothe, a research associate working on Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net project. “This is a move towards cyber-authoritarianism.”
Turkey’s law highlights one of the dangers of governments regulating online speech. While Western governments have pressured social media companies to tackle issues like COVID-19 and election misinformation, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan says “immorality” is their greatest offense.
The final frontier
Erdoğan trained his sights on the internet after taming the conventional media in Turkey, where all but a handful of newspapers and TV channels are either run by the government or companies close to it. The lack of an independent judiciary and a crackdown on journalists — more are in jail in Turkey than any other country — made voicing dissent dangerous even before the new law, which is being phased in after its adoption in late July.
Some 36,000 people, including more than 300 children, were investigated for insulting Erdoğan in 2019 alone.
With the social media law, the president could seal off one of the last arenas of political debate, although the government had already made it risky by prosecuting individuals for their social media posts.
“Tech companies that open local offices will face the same constraints as traditional media, making it extremely difficult to defy the government’s grip on online content,” said Ciğdem Bozdağ, an assistant professor at the Research Center for Media and Journalism Studies at the University of Groningen.
Officials have argued the changes will protect users against online harassment, cyber bullying and privacy violations and point to EU regulations as a model.
The Information Technologies and Communications Authority, the Turkish regulator enforcing the law, did not respond to a request for comment.
Grothe said the Turkish statute differs sharply from Europe’s content moderation proposals because they hold local employees liable for court-ordered content removal, which they must do within 24 hours of notification.
Turkey tends to be trigger-happy in barring websites; more than 450,000 have been blocked. Its heavy-handed approach included a ban on Wikipedia until last year because of entries that were critical of Erdoğan’s son-in-law, a former minister, and YouTube was regularly taken offline for political content.
It is also one of the world’s top requestors for content removal from Twitter and Facebook. A ProPublica investigation revealed that Facebook has censored groups within Turkey that the government dislikes in order to protect its Turkish business.
Now that the government can permanently delete content from the internet, the law “threatens to wipe our digital memory,” said Gürkan Özturan, executive manager at the news site Dokuz8News and a digital rights activist. “It’s like burning down a library.”
Getting in line
Like many independent news portals, Dokuz8News’ Twitter and Facebook accounts drive almost all traffic to its website, but they are frequently suspended for posting stories the government or its supporters find objectionable. Twitter quickly reinstates the account, but Özturan fears the new rules may silence it.
More than a third of Turks use Twitter and Facebook as their primary source of information. Advertising on Turkish social media is expected to fetch companies $236 million in revenue this year.
Despite initial resistance, many tech companies eventually complied with the new law, though image-sharing site Pinterest is still holding out. Facebook announced in January it was creating a legal entity in Turkey. It declined an interview, but said in an email it remains committed to anti-censorship NGO Global Network Initiative’s guidelines on free expression and privacy.
Twitter said this month it too will establish a legal entity ensure its platform remains available to its 13 million users in Turkey. A company spokeswoman declined to comment further.
They joined Google’s YouTube, LinkedIn, as well as video-sharing sites TikTok and Dailymotion.
Conversely, their acquiescence reveals the limits of leaving free-speech protections in the hands of profit-seeking companies that “aren’t in business for the public good,” said Bozdağ. “Turkey’s traffic and advertising constitutes an important market, so it’s not surprising they would opt to compromise rather than attempt heroism and face off against the government.”
Human Rights Watch and other campaigners warned that complying with the government’s demands could “implicate” platforms if people’s privacy and access to information are curtailed. Grothe, the Freedom House researcher, emphasized the “massive threat to privacy” posed by the legislation, especially for political activists who mobilize online. Social networks will be obliged to turn over user data, including for anonymous accounts, to authorities if criminal cases are launched.
With data now required to be stored in Turkey, it won’t be hard for the government to access it. “Storing users’ personal data on Turkish servers puts it within easy reach of the authorities, and since the judiciary has lost much of its independence, this could have negative implications for people the government may want to keep a close eye on,” Grothe said. Europe is also considering the practice.
At the same time, the government is experimenting with its own versions of apps and wants to create “domestic and national” equivalents of Facebook, Google and others. Erdoğan’s press office and other government ministries have stopped communicating with journalists on the WhatsApp messaging service, requiring them to download an app created by a state-run telecoms company — a move that researchers say opens a backdoor for data acquisition.
Foreign tech companies were left grappling with “a double-edged sword,” said Grothe. “If they comply with these laws, they basically become an arm of government censorship by deleting legitimate speech. If they don’t comply … it may lead to these sites going offline in Turkey. It’s a lose-lose situation.”
UPDATED: This article was updated to include Twitter’s response.
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