Turkey is headed for a showdown with Twitter, YouTube and Facebook after pushing ahead with a proposal to block social media sites if they refuse to comply with stringent new conditions.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned this month that he wanted the “immoral” platforms to be either “completely banned or controlled” after Twitter users posted harsh personal attacks against his daughter and son-in-law after the birth of their fourth child.
On Tuesday, Mr Erdogan’s party presented a bill to parliament that would impose new requirements on technology companies with more than 1m daily users in Turkey.
A key feature of the legislation, which is expected to pass before next week’s Eid holiday, is a requirement for social media sites to appoint a local representative in Turkey. If they refuse, authorities can impose fines and throttle their internet bandwidth by up to 90 per cent — in effect banning access to their platforms.
Turkish government officials argue that the changes are a necessary step because tech companies have failed to take action against criminal activity such as sexual abuse, illegal gambling, fraud and support for terrorism.
Fahrettin Altun, the president’s director of communications, has also said that social media giants should not be able to “uncontrollably make profits in our country and continue their operations immune to any tax obligations”.
Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and Reddit declined to comment on the proposals. Google and TikTok did not respond to requests for comment.
The draft law has been met with strong opposition from independent journalists, free speech campaigners and lawyers.
The Vienna-based International Press Institute has described the measures as a “draconian” attempt to “establish complete control over social media and critical content by the government”.
“If the bill passes, the legal infrastructure will strengthen the ruling AKP’s efforts to silence and suppress critical voices online including journalists, who have been already under constant attacks for their social media posts,” it said.
Yaman Akdeniz, a leading Turkish lawyer who has fought past bans on YouTube and Wikipedia, said that the changes would put tech companies in a “catch 22 situation” where they had to choose between co-operating with the Turkish authorities or being banned. “There’s no positive outcome,” he said.
Mr Erdogan, who swept to power 18 years ago, has established near-total dominance over Turkey’s conventional media over his two decades at the country’s helm.
The Turkish president has sought to extend that control to social media. Thousands of people are arrested each year for their social media posts. Turkey frequently tops Twitter’s list of countries that submit the largest number of requests to remove content or shut down user accounts.
Still, Twitter remains one of the few spaces where opposition politicians, journalists and activists can make their voices heard. Alternative news and analysis programmes have flourished on Periscope, Twitter’s live broadcasting platform, and YouTube.
As well as asking social media platforms to appoint at least one representative in Turkey — something they have long resisted — the new legislation asks them to store users’ personal data within the country and to respond to complaints about content within 48 hours. Court orders must be implemented within 24 hours.
Mr Akdeniz said that he was also concerned about a separate, little-noticed provision in the bill that also empowers courts to order Turkish news sites to remove content.
Judges can already ask internet service providers to block certain websites or pages. More than 400,000 Turkish sites were blocked at the end of 2019, according to IFOD, a Turkish freedom of expression association. Recent additions include the Independent’s Turkish-language outlet and the popular opposition news outlet OdaTV.
The change would give the courts the power to order news outlets to remove content. “The AKP govt will use this measure as a cleansing operation,” said Mr Akdeniz. “It will cleanse its political past.”
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