Don’t Insult Me, I’m the President: Turkey passes law to increase control over social media

August 5, 2020

3 min read

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What's going on here?

The Turkish government recently passed a bill that will impose stricter regulation over “immoral” social media companies with the aim of protecting Turkey’s 55 million internet users from disinformation.

What does this mean?

The latest move to clamp down on social media companies has been provoked by comments left on Turkey’s Finance Minister’s Twitter post announcing the birth of his fourth child. The Finance Minister is the Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s son-in-law, and the baby in question is the President’s grandson. Erdogan claimed that he and his family were insulted by the comments. This led the Turkish President to announce that he planned to “shut down” social media platforms because they “do not suit the nation”.  

Under the new bill:

  • All non-Turkish social media companies with over 1 million users must have a representative in Turkey. 
  • These companies must store any Turkish users’ data in Turkey. 
  • Companies must respond to complaints from authorities within 48 hours.

The penalties for breaching these rules include fines of up to $1.5m and bandwidth reductions of up to 95%, which would leave social media companies unable to function.

What's the big picture effect?

Erdogan has long disliked social media. In 2014, the Turkish parliament passed laws that allowed regulators to block websites without a court ruling. At the time, the then Prime Minister Erdogan demonised social media as “the worst menace to society”. 

These laws and political events have led to issues around freedom of expression in Turkey. Following a failed coup d’état in 2016, Erdogan arrested or suspended thousands of judges, university deans, civil servants and police officers in what is widely perceived as a purge of his political opposition.  This crackdown has continued on the internet. By the end of 2019, hundreds of thousands of Tweets, YouTube videos and Facebook posts had been blocked by the country, along with over 400,000 websites. Many Turks have been forced to use VPNs in order to dodge the restrictions. Today, popular social media sites are one of the most important sources of criticism of Turkey’s President in a country where most of the mainstream media is controlled by pro-government businesses. 

In light of this, the Turkish President’s latest move to combat social media has drawn criticism from Human Rights Groups. The new law will enable the government to control social media, to get content removed at will, and to arbitrarily target individual users,” said the Deputy Program Director at Human Rights Watch. He added that social media was a “lifeline” for those who want to access the news, warning that the new law points to a “new dark era of online censorship”. 

How will social media companies react? They can either comply with the law, lobby the government and challenge the law via lawsuits, or pull their operations from the country completely. In jurisdictions where the rule of law is well established, challenging the constitutionality of laws can be a successful tactic as happened when France’s Constitutional Council struck down key provisions of its new internet law “Loi Avia” in June. 

But the difficulty is when there is not a clear rule of law. Social media companies face a dilemma between damaging freedom of expression or damaging their business. In Singapore and Russia, both jurisdictions with oppressive internet regulation, Facebook has complied with the laws. However, Google, Facebook and Twitter have not complied with China’s new national security law imposed on Hong Kong in defiance of the Chinese government. In Turkey’s case, companies will have to weigh up their business interests against the quality of Turkey’s rule of law. It remains to be seen whether they will work with the Turkish government and regulators or end their operations in the country.

Report written by Will Holmes

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