FOR THE RECORD*
On July 31, 2020, Turkey enacted a new internet law that greatly expands the government’s powers to police social media, which has 54 million users in Turkey. The law seeks to force foreign companies owning popular platforms to comply with government censorship. It will further erode Turkey’s deteriorating freedom of expression.
The Basics of the New Law
The new law requires big international social media companies with more than 1 million daily users—such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube—to open offices in Turkey that will be responsible for following orders to block or remove content from their platforms. Such orders can come from the government or from individuals, and can target any posts, pages, or accounts that complainants deem offensive. The companies would have 48 hours to comply or face fines of more than the equivalent of USD $1 million—and face having their bandwidth slowed down by 90 percent, which would effectively make them inaccessible to users. (The companies may contest the orders in Turkish courts, but with the judiciary now largely under the sway of the presidency, this approach may not provide due process.) The law also requires companies to store user data inside Turkey, which means that the government could seek to access that data in the future.
Turkey’s authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is obsessed with controlling public information. He has largely succeeded in gaining direct or indirect control over most newspapers and television channels, but the internet, and social media in particular, has been one of the few spaces remaining for free public debate. Thus, Erdoğan has been trying to control that as well. Turkey has previously banned YouTube and Wikipedia and tops the list of countries demanding content removal from Twitter. But the new law will give the government sweeping powers over the social media companies.
Response of Social Media Companies
According to the Turkish government, all companies affected by the law have already agreed to comply, except for Twitter, which has not yet responded. (With nearly 12 million users in Turkey, Twitter is less popular than YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook, but is still among the five most-used platforms). The complying companies are required to open an office in Turkey with at least one employee—presumably a lawyer—by October 1.
Comparison to Other Governments’ Efforts
The Turkish government likens its new social media law to NetzDG, a German law that went into effect in 2018. This law requires large social media platforms to remove “illegal content,” including posts that “insult” public office holders, threatening fines of up to 50 million euro (USD $59 million). Australia passed a law in 2015 creating a commissioner responsible for enforcing the removal of offensive social media content within 48 hours. And a 2015 Russian law requires social media companies to store all data on Russians inside the country; Russia has used this law to block LinkedIn and to fine Twitter and Facebook).
Given that Turkey does not respect freedom of expression, these companies are likely to receive many content removal requests after October 1. But if these platforms are seen as complicit in the Turkish government’s censorship efforts, they will no longer serve as a space for free expression in Turkey and will damage their reputations in Turkey and globally. If necessary, Turkish people will migrate to newer and smaller social media platforms that resist or circumvent government censorship. Erdoğan’s efforts at censorship will fail in the long run. No doubt, the new law is a major setback to free expression. But Turkish youth are savvier than the government in the digital space and will find ways to access information.
* FOR THE RECORD blog posts provide facts, background, and context for newsworthy and policy-relevant topics involving rights and freedoms in the MENA region.