With Internet Bill, Turkey Drifts Away from Democracy

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By
Liridona Malota
Internet Freedom Intern


Turkey has a history of violating internet freedom, and abuses of media freedom in general are rising sharply. But if President Abdullah Gül signs the restrictive internet bill adopted by the parliament last week, he will take the country into uncharted territory.

Going well beyond previous edicts on Turkish cyberspace, the new legislation hands the government the authority to block individual URLs without judicial review. It also obliges internet service providers (ISPs) to store users’ personal internet data for up to two years, and creates a single association of ISPs.

Draconian measures to censor the internet are not shocking given Turkey’s track record on media and internet freedom over the past decade. Since 2001, the government has sought to codify laws that directly target online content in a manner that disregards the universal right to “seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” The 2007 law that the new legislation would amend, No. 5651 on Regulating Broadcasting in the Internet, already allows courts to block websites if there is “sufficient suspicion” of a crime. The measure was invoked to ban YouTube in 2008–10, and more recently Vimeo, another video-sharing service, in January 2014. In its 2013 Transparency Report, Google disclosed that the Turkish government had made almost 1,700 requests to remove material, and Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net 2013 report stated that Turkey was blocking 29,000 websites as of April 2013.

Such restrictions have been subject to critical rulings by the European Court of Human Rights, which condemned Law No. 5651 in 2012. But the judgments have not deterred Turkey from pursuing additional mechanisms for censoring online speech.

The European Union has denounced the new bill publicly, indicating that it would not be compatible with Turkey’s EU candidacy. In issuing his statement on the legislation, EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule ironically used Twitter, which Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan labeled a “menace” following its prominent role in antigovernment protests centered on Istanbul’s Gezi Park in the summer of 2013.

However, the internet bill is not simply a response to the protests, which were ultimately crushed by police. Instead, the legislation seems designed to suppress leaks related to a corruption investigation into Erdoğan’s government. One damaging audio recording, in which the prime minister is allegedly heard discussing a bribe to ease zoning laws for a construction tycoon, was shared through the file-sharing site SoundCloud in January.

The proposed law would effectively institutionalize  many of the violations of user rights that the government until now has committed on an ad hoc, indirect, or extralegal basis. For example:

  • The bill circumvents the often pliant courts by giving the transport and telecommunications minister full authority to block individual URLs based on mere allegations. No safeguards are included to ensure transparency and due process.
  • The rules requiring ISPs to keep records of users’ online activity for up to two years would also force them to hand over unspecified data to the government on demand. There are no provisions for independent oversight of these requests, leaving the door open to extensive abuse.
  • The amendment creating a single association of ISPs has led Doğan Akın, founder of the news website T24, to argue that the legislation is an attempt by the government to control the internet in the same way that it already controls traditional media—through financial, regulatory, and political pressure on large business groups.

After the parliament adopted the bill, Turkish citizens flooded the streets last Saturday, chanting, “Hands off my internet!” Freedom House has joined Turkish civil society and other international organizations in calling on President Gül to veto the legislation.

The EU should likewise continue to urge the president to reject a statute that would contradict the principles of its Digital Agenda, including freedom of expression, access to independent media, and user privacy. As Catherine Ashton, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, stated in January 2013, “For cyberspace to remain open and free, the same norms, principles and values that the EU upholds offline, should also apply online.”

The United States has also expressed concerns about the bill, but it and other allies of Turkey have often been reluctant to confront Erdoğan’s government over its growing antidemocratic abuses. To prevent further deterioration, the United States—as a supporter of Turkish democracy and a promoter of internet freedom—must urgently remind Ankara that Turkey’s political stability and economic vitality depend in large part on its compliance with human rights obligations.

There are many ways in which the Erdoğan government’s actions are opening a gap between its international ambitions for Turkey and the country’s actual course, but one marker of this divergence is fast approaching. In September 2014, Istanbul will host the ninth annual meeting of the Internet Governance Forum, for which human rights, freedom of expression, and the free flow of information on the internet are key concerns. As host, Turkey must set an example of basic compliance with these norms. It will be patently unable to do so if President Gül signs the internet legislation currently before him.

Photo from Twitter