Turkish government passes harsh new internet law

Today, Turkish President Abdullah Gül signed a law increasing the government’s already tight grip on the internet. Even before Gül put pen to paper, Turkey was home to one of the world’s most restrictive internet censorship regimes — and this new legislation will only further undermine Turkish internet users’ fundamental rights.

The bill, an update to existing internet legislation, includes a series of new, draconian provisions such as expanding the government’s authority to block web content without court approval, granting private citizens the right to request content removal, and increasing data retention requirements for businesses.

Under the law, internet hosting companies will also have to retain traffic information from each site they host for at least one year, and internet cafes will be required to track users and restrict access content deemed illegal or for “protection of family.” Together, these provisions will further chill the free expression of Turkish netizens, and disproportionately impact the predominantly lower-income users of internet cafes.

Cinching an already tight noose

Turkey already has a history of aggressive state censorship of the internet. YouTube endured a lengthy blockade for hosting content insulting to Kemal Atatürk, the first president of Turkey. Other popular websites, including Vimeo, Soundcloud, and Pastebin have also been blocked by authorities; local news site Vagus.TV was censored after it published evidence of government corruption.

In 2012, the government’s decision to block all websites hosted by Google Sites — as a means of censoring yet again more content criticizing Atatürk — resulted in a case before the European Court of Human Rights. The Court found in favor [PDF] of the plaintiff, ruling that the government’s block was a violation of the right to freedom of expression, and finding that the country’s legal system did not provide sufficiently robust protections against future violations.

This new law not only expands the government’s takedown authority, but also gives private citizens the ability to ask courts to remove online content. It is not hard to imagine the drastic consequences of such a private right to takedown online content: if a Turkish user posts an embarrassing photo of a friend on Facebook, the friend could conceivable get a court to issue an order to block that content.

These new internet censorship rules come into force on the heels of recent revelations, posted anonymously online, of government attempts to limit press freedoms in Turkey. A leaked recording of a phone conversation purportedly between Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and Fatih Sarac, deputy chairman of Ciner Media Group, was posted on YouTube. In the phone call, Erdogan rebukes Sarac for airing remarks by opposition members on television stations Haberturk TV after the Gezi Park anti-government protests last June.

Domestic restrictions at odds with global aspirations

In September this year Turkey will host the 2014 Internet Governance Forum, the world’s largest gathering of internet policy experts, human rights advocates, and civil society groups. The selection of Turkey as host, despite ever-more restrictive conditions on free speech and user privacy, are a discomforting echo of another global internet summit that took place nearly ten years ago: the Second Phase of the World Summit on the Information Society, held in Tunis amidst outrage over domestic censorship. It is almost certain that the Istanbul IGF will host protests alongside its many meeting and panels.

In addition to hosting the IGF, Turkey has also been aggressively pursuing a greater role on digital rights at the U.N. Human Rights Council, and was recently announced as one of nine nations to be represented at the High-Level Stakeholder Committee responsible for the strategy of the forthcoming NETMundial Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance in Brazil. But if Turkey wants to be a global leader on internet policy, it must start by protecting a free and open internet at home.

Political implications

Many in Turkey are outraged by this unpopular attempt to silence the internet, and will likely continue to oppose it. Protesters recently filled the streets and more than 80,000 Twitter users have unfollowed President Gül in protest, rallying around the hashtag #UnFollowAbdullahGul.

Turkey will hold elections later this summer, and as the negative impacts of this law become clear — in terms of domestic censorship, increased business liability, and loss of standing in the international arena — the vocal public rejection of the law is likely to only grow in intensity. The government should revoke the new bill and ensure that all Turkish internet users have access to an uncompromised internet.