Turkey’s parliament is preparing to vote on a bill that would effectively block sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube unless they comply with strict new regulations, as Ankara significantly steps up its efforts to control social media content.
The draft legislation would force social media companies with more than 1 million daily users in Turkey to establish a formal presence in the country or assign an in-country representative who would be legally accountable to the Turkish authorities.
Companies or their representatives would then be required to respond within 48 hours to complaints about posts that “violate personal and privacy rights” and international companies would be required to store user data inside Turkey. If they do not comply, Turkish authorities will be able to levy steep fines of up to $1.5m (£1.2m) and throttle sites’ bandwidth by up to 90%, effectively making them unusable.
The bill would also allow courts to order Turkish news websites to remove content within 24 hours.
The justice commission of the Turkish parliament approved the draft in the early hours of Friday, while the country was gearing up for the reopening of the Hagia Sophia as a mosque. A vote is as yet unscheduled but is expected to pass with the support of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling party and coalition partner.
“We aim to put an end to insults, swearing and harassment made through social media,” the ruling party legislator, Özlem Zengin, said earlier this week, adding that the measures sought to balance freedoms with rights and laws.
Erdoğan had earlier this month appeared rattled by comments on Twitter criticising his daughter and son-in-law after the birth of their fourth child, telling members of his Justice and Development party (AKP) that the “immoral” platforms “do not suit this country and our people” and should be “brought to order”.
The Turkish leader has steadily consolidated control over traditional media during his 17 years in office, making social media channels the primary platforms for critics of the government and alternative news organisations.
In the first six months of 2019, Twitter received 6,073 requests from the Turkish government for content to be removed from the social network, covering 8,993 accounts, the second highest of any country after Indonesia. Twitter complied with 5% of the requests and rejected the rest.
Thousands of individuals are arrested as a result of sending social media posts every year in Turkey, usually over allegations of insulting Turkishness, the president, or support for terrorism. The proposed legislation marks a new direction, however, allowing Ankara to exert direct control over the platforms.
Facebook and Twitter declined to comment. YouTube did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The legislation was first introduced in April, buried deep in a package of emergency economic measures to help Turkey weather the coronavirus pandemic, but was dropped after criticism from opposition politicians, lawyers and human rights groups.
“Turkey’s social media bill is a blatant attempt to make international companies censor more news on behalf of Turkey’s leaders,” said Gulnoza Said, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Europe and Central Asia programme coordinator.
“For years, social media posts have been used to prosecute Turkish journalists, and the proposed measures would put them even more at risk for sharing information with the public. We call on the Turkish parliament to reject this bill in its current form.”