Turkey's parliament approved a law early Wednesday that gives authorities greater power to regulate social media despite concerns of growing censorship.
The government says the legislation was needed to combat cyber-crime and protect users. Speaking in parliament Wednesday morning, ruling party lawmaker Rumeysa Kadak said it would be used to remove posts that contain cyberbullying and insults against women.
Opposition lawmakers said the law would further limit freedom of expression in a country where the media is already under tight government control and dozens of journalists are in jail. They called the bill the “censorship law.”
If a social media company refuses to designate an official representative, the legislation mandates steep fines, advertising bans and bandwidth reductions. With a court ruling, bandwidth would be halved, and then cut further. Bandwidth reductions mean social media networks would be too slow to use.
The representative will be be tasked with responding to individual requests to take down content violating privacy and personal rights within 48 hours or to provide grounds for rejection. The company would be held liable for damages if the content is not removed or blocked within 24 hours.
Most alarmingly, the nine-article legislation also would require social media providers to store user data in Turkey.
Hundreds of people have been investigated and some arrested over social media posts on the COVID-19 pandemic, opposition to Turkish military offensives abroad or insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other officials.
Erdogan has demanded the law, vowing to “control social media platforms” and eradicate immorality.
Cyber-rights activist and academic Yaman Akdeniz tweeted: "A new and dark period is starting in Turkey” with the new law. He argued the law would be used to remove content critical of the government rather than to protect users.
Bu sabah erken saatlerde Sosyal Medya Yasa Teklifi beklendiği üzere Meclisten geçti ve yasalaştı. Türkiye'de yeni ve karanlık bir dönem başlıyor. Hükümet “vatandaşın derdini çözüyoruz” derken sadece kendi derdini çözdü. Amaç susturmak ve kendi karanlık dönemlerini aydınlatmak.— Yaman Akdeniz (@cyberrights) July 29, 2020
Rights groups and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights came out against the bill Tuesday ahead of the vote, with Amnesty International calling it “draconian.”
“If passed, these amendments would significantly increase the government's powers to censor online content and prosecute social media users. This is a clear violation of the right to freedom of expression online and contravenes international human rights law and standards," Amnesty International's Andrew Gardner said.
Turkey leads the world in removal requests to Twitter, with more than 6,000 demands in the first half of 2019.
More than 408,000 websites are blocked in Turkey, according to The Freedom of Expression Association.
Online encyclopedia Wikipedia was blocked for nearly three years before Turkey's top court ruled that the ban violated the right to freedom of expression.
54 million people in the country of 83 million are active social media users.
A July survey by polling company Metropoll showed 49.6 percent of respondents did not support a law that could limit, shut down or fine social media companies over content. Some 40.8 percent said they would support it.
Social media companies did not immediately comment.
The law passed after 16 hours of tense deliberations in parliament, where President Erdogan's ruling party and its nationalist ally hold the majority of seats. It will be published in the Official Gazette after Erdogan approves it and will come into effect on October 1.
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